The Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC) and the Microsoft Security Response Center (MSRC) on Wednesday claimed that they found an Austrian-based private-sector offensive actor (PSOA) exploiting multiple Windows and Adobe 0-day exploits in “limited and targeted attacks” against European and Central American customers.
For the unversed, PSOAs are private companies that manufacture and sell cyberweapons in hacking-as-a-service packages, often to government agencies around the world, to hack into their targets’ computers, phones, network infrastructure, and other devices.
The Austrian-based PSOA named DSIRF, which Microsoft had dubbed Knotweed, has been linked to the development and attempted sale of a malware toolset called “Subzero”.
DSIRF promotes itself on the website as a company that provides “mission-tailored services in the fields of information research, forensics as well as data-driven intelligence to multinational corporations in the technology, retail, energy, and financial sectors” and have “a set of highly sophisticated techniques in gathering and analyzing information.”
The Redmond giant said the Austria-based DSIRF falls into a group of cyber mercenaries that sell hacking tools or services through a variety of business models. Two common models for this type of actor are access-as-a-service and hack-for-hire.
MSTIC found that the Subzero malware was being circulated on computers through a variety of methods, including 0-day exploits in Windows and Adobe Reader, in the years, 2021 and 2022.
As part of its investigation into the utility of this malware, Microsoft’s communications with a Subzero victim revealed that they had not authorized any red teaming or penetration testing, and confirmed that it was unauthorized, malicious activity.
“Observed victims to date include law firms, banks, and strategic consultancies in countries such as Austria, the United Kingdom, and Panama. It’s important to note that the identification of targets in a country doesn’t necessarily mean that a DSIRF customer resides in the same country, as international targeting is common,” Microsoft wrote in a detailed blog post.
“MSTIC has found multiple links between DSIRF and the exploits and malware used in these attacks. These include command-and-control infrastructure used by the malware directly linking to DSIRF, a DSIRF-associated GitHub account being used in one attack, a code signing certificate issued to DSIRF being used to sign an exploit, and other open-source news reports attributing Subzero to DSIRF.”
In May 2022, Microsoft detected an Adobe Reader remote code execution (RCE) and a 0-day Windows privilege escalation exploit chain being used in an attack that led to the deployment of Subzero.
“The exploits were packaged into a PDF document that was sent to the victim via email. Microsoft was not able to acquire the PDF or Adobe Reader RCE portion of the exploit chain, but the victim’s Adobe Reader version was released in January 2022, meaning that the exploit used was either a 1-day exploit developed between January and May, or a 0-day exploit,” the company explained.
Based on DSIRF’s extensive use of additional zero-days, Microsoft believes that the Adobe Reader RCE was indeed a zero-day exploit. The Windows exploit was analyzed by MSRC, found to be a 0-day exploit, and then patched in July 2022 as CVE-2022-22047 in the Windows Client/Server Runtime Subsystem (csrss.exe).
The Austrian company’s exploits are also being linked to previous two Windows privilege escalation exploits (CVE-2021-31199 and CVE-2021-31201) being used in conjunction with an Adobe Reader exploit (CVE-2021-28550), all of which were patched in June 2021.
In 2021, the cyber mercenary group was also linked to the exploitation of a fourth zero-day, a Windows privilege escalation flaw in the Windows Update Medic Service (CVE-2021-36948), which allowed an attacker to force the service to load an arbitrary signed DLL.
To mitigate against such attacks, Microsoft has recommended its customers to:
Besides using technical means to disrupt Knotweed, Microsoft has also submitted written testimony to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Hearing on “Combatting the Threats to U.S. National Security from the Proliferation of Foreign Commercial Spyware.”
Teesside University graduate Keavey Gamwell showcased her outstanding creative talents on a global platform as she took home bronze at the prestigious Adobe World Championship.
Teesside University graduate Keavey Gamwell
After winning at Prodigy Learning’s National Championship for Adobe Certified Professionals, graphic design graduate Keavey was elected to represent her country at the Adobe Certified Professional World Championship.
The international competition, which took place in Disneyland in California, USA, saw finalists take part in a real-world design challenge for non-profit marine conservation organisation, The Ocean Agency, demonstrating their proficiency in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign.
Keavey, 22, from Middlesbrough, designed a poster to encourage people to play their part in saving coral reefs, which saw her clinch third place, a bronze medal and $1,500 prize money as she competed against the best and brightest young creatives from across the world.
The fantastic result represents a record for the UK and Ireland at the Adobe Certified Professional World Championship, as it is the highest a British finalist has ever ranked.
Keavey said: “I am so proud to represent both my country and Teesside University overseas and reaching the highest achievement for the UK feels like first place in itself. Adobe is the industry standard, so to place third feels very prestigious.
“My entry was for a non-profit called The Ocean Agency, which works on the conservation of marine life and environments. The work had to engage an audience to act on saving coral reefs, specifically around Egypt's COP summit later this year in Sharm El-Sheikh. I decided to add coral elements to the main text to attract attention and stand out from other posters around.
“Going in, I was so excited to be travelling to do something creative and exciting. Of course, I was nervous to see other competitors’ talents and strengths, but I held my own enough to place well.
“Coming out, I had the joy of a day of stress relief in the Disney Parks - so I can't complain.”
Salma Sanchez from the USA came in first place, taking gold, while Manoela Campos, from Brazil, achieved second place and received the silver medal.
Having graduated from Teesside University in July with a first-class honours degree in BA (Hons) Graphic Design with Marketing in the School of Arts & Creative Industries, Keavey feels proud to have achieved so much already in her burgeoning career as a graphic designer.
I am so proud to represent both my country and Teesside University overseas and reaching the highest achievement for the UK feels like first place in itself.
She added: “For now, I'm really looking forward to settling into my Junior Graphic Design role at Juiced Studios. A rest is on the cards after a busy few months – graduating, studying abroad in the Czech Republic and coming third at this World Championship.”
Keavey qualified for the national championship after successfully completing free online training delivered by the Digital Enablement team at Teesside University and its partner Prodigy Learning, achieving an excellent test score and gaining Adobe Certified Professional certification demonstrating her expert skills in Adobe Photoshop.
The training, offered in both Adobe and Microsoft, forms part of the University’s Future Facing Learning initiative, which works to enhance digital skills and Excellerate employability across Team Teesside and beyond.
The University was also the first higher education institution in Europe to gain Adobe Creative Campus status in recognition of its commitment to promoting digital literacy.
Laura Sillars, Dean of Teesside University’s School of Arts & Creative Industries, credited the University’s award-winning Future Facing Learning initiative as a key element in the professional development of students and staff, encouraging and facilitating digital learning in an increasingly digital world.
She said: “The central mission of our school is to ensure that our students’ creative careers are transformed. To see a young person travel from their hometown in Middlesbrough to the USA and achieve success against competitors from across the world represents one of those moments.
“Every one of our students at Teesside University has access to career-enhancing digital opportunities. Massive congratulations to Keavey for her tenacity and boldness. We look forward to seeing her creative career grow from strength to strength.”
Andrew Lenehan, Regional Account Manager, Prodigy Learning, added: “Congratulations to Keavey; this is a momentous achievement and she has been an excellent ambassador for the UK and Ireland in the competition.
“Keavey’s success highlights the future talent coming into the creative industries in the UK and the Tees Valley and having the Adobe Certified Professional certification will help turbocharge her future career.”
DSIRF has been spotted by Microsoft using Remote code execution and 0-day privilege escalation exploits in Windows and Adobe software to deploy Subzero. The exploits were packaged into a malicious PDF file that was sent to the victim via email. Earlier DSIRF used privilege escalation exploits in windows in conjunction with Adobe exploits to deploy the Subzero malware.
While Microsoft has patched the exploits, it recommends
As film nerds and TV lovers, Netflix always keeps us on the edge of our seats. From the company’s early days as a DVD rental-by-mail service to its current status as a go-to source for streaming entertainment globally, Netflix has forever changed the way content is created, distributed and consumed. Their dedication to innovation extends deeply to the creative community, as they continue to reimagine production and post workflows to let storytelling shine. At Adobe, this mission underscores everything we do.
Today, we’re excited to share that Adobe will be joining Netflix’s new Post Technology Alliance, a program for manufacturers committed to serving the evolving needs of the post-production community through innovation and support. Adobe Premiere Pro CC and Adobe After Effects CC will receive a Post Technology Alliance product designation, a mark of quality, service, and support. The Post Technology Alliance logo signals that a product meets and will continue to meet Netflix’s high quality technical and delivery specifications. Together, we’ll work hand-in-hand to solve the challenges currently faced by post-production professionals and push the boundaries of technology so creativity can flow freely.
From VFX sensation Stranger Things 2 to the masterfully executed MINDHUNTER to the controversial and intriguing Wild, Wild Country, we’ve been wowed by the Netflix shows created with the help of our professional video tools like Premiere Pro and After Effects. And we can’t wait to queue up the projects coming soon to Netflix, like the Coen Brothers’ film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, edited with Premiere Pro.
“The creatives behind Netflix’s original content are truly at the top of their game,” said Van Bedient, senior strategic development manager at Adobe. “Through the Post Technology Alliance, we’re excited to support the creative community and align with one of the biggest innovators in entertainment today to build optimized post-production workflows together.”
“At Netflix, empowering our creative partners is incredibly important, and the Post Technology Alliance will build a more seamless experience from production through post-production,” said Chris Fetner, director of post partnerships & integrations at Netflix. “Products that bear the logo are committed to better interoperability and faster innovation cycles, which will allow artists to focus their energy on what matters most—the storytelling.”
For more information on the Netflix Post Technology Alliance designations of Premiere Pro and After Effects, please visit:
Ethan Lou writes a regular column in The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business. His latest book is Once a Bitcoin Miner: Scandal and Turmoil in the Cryptocurrency Wild West.
In 2010, the company now known as Sphero was founded in Boulder, Colo., with the mission of making a nice robotic ball. You might have heard of it. Sphero was hired by Disney to bring to life the BB-8 droid from the Star Wars films, so that the snowman-shaped, orange-accented robot could be sold as a toy. The company’s founders were both tinkerers. They loved this ball stuff.
But the market thought differently. Sphero didn’t make as much as money as expected. The company faced a problem: After you’ve sold people a ball, and everyone who wants a ball has a ball, how do you keep the lights on and the bills paid?
In other words, how do you make people keep paying you for the one ball for which they’ve already paid?
So, at the beginning of 2018, the company laid off 45 people and pivoted hard into a different area of its business: tying a recurring educational package to its ball and selling that to schools. The company had no doubt looked around, seen what everyone else was doing, and realized the key to survival: Its ball needed to be a subscription.
Subscriptions are not new. Gym memberships are subscriptions. The product that you’re studying at this very moment is a subscription. But these days, everything else is also a subscription, whether songs, video games or Microsoft Word. In one way or another, Tesla cars and Peloton exercise bicycles do not have their full functions available unless you pay for a special membership. There are now subscriptions for razors, watches, clothing and bamboo toilet paper. There are even services that help people build and sell subscriptions, some of which charge a monthly fee – a subscription-subscription. In certain markets, BMW has made its heated car seats a subscription. Canada’s EQ Bank recently put out a note asking if customers have “hit subscription overload.”
As with Sphero, which had been nudged along by investors, a company has an obvious financial case for pursuing the subscription model. The episode description for one business-to-business influencer’s podcast reads: “If you sell an apron, a pacifier, or a pool cover, how do you create recurring revenue?” Dive deep into the minds of business folks, and you will see – from self-styled gurus to big-name tech executives, people talk up subscriptions as if they’ve just discovered the cure for cancer.
Many of these new subscriptions are unremarkable. Taco Bell’s taco subscription, for example, is really just a clever discount for tacos. But there’s also a new, different type of subscription: the type that, in order to exist, changes the very nature of what is being sold – is Sphero’s actual product the ball that you’ve bought, or is it the constantly updating software inside it that you rent?
That ball-and-education-chain is hardly the only example. In the world of technology, this increasing subscriptionization is having a particular impact on the products underneath.
As we increasingly rely on that world, it might be time to look deeper into what else changes when everything morphs into a subscription.
At the turn of the millennium, the world got to know Apple’s iPod and the iTunes music downloads that came with it. While downloading MP3s was already a thing, it was still largely an insular activity pursued by pirates. Apple made it legal and, more importantly, mainstream. Downloading songs then became a natural bridge to streaming them – from iTunes to Apple Music and Spotify, a transition of great significance.
While there have long been membership-type elements to music, such as Columbia House’s recurring CD-mailing system, they never really caught on as much. With these new streaming services, music, as a whole, became a subscription.
This evolution reflects a major shift in the nature of the underlying product: What was once an object on a physical device like a CD, a corporeal item to retain, has become something intangible and ethereal, like a thought – and an item that can only be consumed and not stored.
Of course, maybe the product is not actually the product. In the subscriptionizing of music, as with Sphero’s ball, the following question pops up: What really is the item being sold? Is it any specific piece of music, or is it really the temporary access to an intuitive music library and the endless choices it offers?
As with any philosophical riddle, there’s no right answer. Large parts of tech, and particularly the parts that drive its value, are intangible – like software, data, ideas and digital milestones. Therefore, the concept of identity – what the underlying product is, and the implications of that – can be quite subjective. Therefore, it is malleable.
And so, as music became available by subscription, it shifted from being a product to a service.
That reflects the new significance that an old industry buzz-term has gained: “software as a service” – or, what it really means, “software as a subscription.” The term was originally for business-to-business applications, but now it essentially describes the entire digital economy. As with the move away from CDs, what used to be software that people effectively bought and could use for life, such as Microsoft Word and Adobe Photoshop, is now increasingly being offered via subscription. In many cases, entire video games or apps now rest on servers, like with the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. A server is essentially a whole other computer, and when you use software that is hosted on one, you’re streaming from that other computer – these days, many items you don’t expect to be are, at their heart, all Netflix subscriptions.
This transition is a phenomenon that extends beyond software. With the Internet of Things trend of the past years – in which all appliances and previously non-tech products are becoming “smart” – everything is tech now. Peloton’s real product, for example, isn’t its overpriced bicycle. It’s the operating system inside it that delivers recurring fitness lessons.
I once heard a venture capitalist firmly dismissing the idea of investing in any hardware company if the founders also do not come up with a subscription aspect. This isn’t a Sphero investor, but clearly such tech backers all think alike. One day, literally everything could become a subscription.
In many ways, all of this is wonderful. The subscription-based software on smart appliances brings many conveniences. Hewlett-Packard’s smart printers, for example, if hooked on to an Instant Ink plan, sense when your cartridges are running out and automatically tell the company to send new ones. Products becoming services also means new features are more easily delivered, without having to buy a new device. For media, you don’t need to wait for movies and songs to finish downloading and then find space to store large collections. For software, month-to-month subscriptions are a lot more bearable than buying these programs outright. And with certain subscription-based software actually running on a server, you no longer need an expensive, powerful device.
Subscriptions, by granting companies more – and more stable – revenue, also make possible products and services that might not otherwise be sustainable. Only a subscription model is what makes available to anyone an endless library of not just existing movies and television shows on Netflix but also its original content, some of which is not even bad.
But while parts of this subscription life are certainly attractive, it’s easy to forget that, if we closely examined the motivations of its peddlers, peeled back all the layers, we’d find only the yellow avarice of profit underneath. As much as all these conveniences distract from the naked greed fuelling the trend, they also hide the growing price of what we lose when everything becomes a subscription.
There is the obvious. Even if software subscriptions cost less upfront than buying outright, they end up more expensive over the long run. And streaming media entails not downloading the file once but repeatedly with every watch or listen. The resultant data flow is staggering, and so is the energy use. By the end of 2018, streaming just the song Desposito, for example, had used the equivalent of five African countries’ annual electricity consumption, according to a researcher from a European Commission project.
The greater issue, though, goes back to how subscriptions have warped the nature of the product underneath. That’s significant not just in itself but also in how it’s changed our thinking.
The British tech journalist Chris Stokel-Walker recently summed up that shift from buying CDs to music-streaming subscriptions: “Now, we’re so used to not physically owning an object. We just kind of rent them in cloud computing space.”
A purchased CD belongs to us. An album on a streaming service – we’ve come to accept that it does not. And our acceptance pushes technology further down this road. In a preview for a conference presentation last year, the then-chief commercial officer of HP, Christoph Schell, said: “Customers are not necessarily interested to own technology … and so it has a profound impact on products that we design.”
What this compounding cycle of cause and effect would lead toward is laid out pithily in part of the title of Mr. Schell’s presentation: “The End of Ownership.” In embracing subscriptions, in which products become services, we’re losing something important.
A 2016 book by two American academics, incidentally, is also called The End of Ownership, and while the book is not itself about subscriptions, it charts the effects of a similar evolution as that of the business model of music: the same shift in parts of the publishing industry.
First comes the transition from buying a physical version to downloading a virtual one.
Contrary to popular belief, an ebook is often no cheaper than a physical title. But with an ebook, not only can you not provide it to a friend or sell it, Amazon can remotely delete Kindle books for its own arbitrary reasons, as it has done for some editions of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and one Norwegian woman’s entire library.
Then, as with music, comes the shift from downloads to subscriptions, and companies start exerting more undue power over customers. In 2014, when Scholastic made that leap for its educational titles, the publisher told users: “The switch to streaming means that ebooks you’ve previously purchased may soon no longer be accessible.”
From completely owning an object physically, to partially owning it digitally, and then to only renting it – such is the subscription transition inherent in all corners of the digital economy, whether it is a song, a book or a piece of software. And as we rent instead of own, as the authors of The End of Ownership put it, we lose our privacy and our autonomy – “the sense of self-direction, that our behaviors reflect our own preferences and choices rather than the dictates of some external authority.”
In other words, alongside laws, whose writers we can somewhat hold accountable if we live in a democracy, our lives are also increasingly governed by the tiny-print gobbledygook of end-user agreements – unequal terms by an unaccountable private company that we have been effectively forced to accept.
While such a phenomenon might be most apparent in the intangible, digital economy, it is not confined to it. As subscriptions spread into hardware along with the Internet of Things trend, so, too, will the end of ownership creep further into our lives.
Amid the war in Ukraine, people on Twitter urged Tesla chief executive Elon Musk to remotely turn off the company’s cars in Russia. Tesla’s ability to do that is not unique. Even the petrol-based cars being made now depend on the on-board computer for ignition, and many other manufacturers can remotely shut off their newer vehicles.
Of course, Mr. Musk didn’t end up doing it. What a silly notion! But consider the fact that people on Twitter even asked. That is a reflection of how we are, perhaps, already approaching a day when that idea is no longer so fanciful, when, like software and media, we enjoy our hardware only by the good grace of the company that provides it.
Many cars already come with subscriber-only features, from remote locking to navigation assistance. Now, some automakers, Tesla most prominent among them, are trying to push so-called “self-driving” subscriptions.
Bit by bit, cars are becoming a little less metal machine and a little more software – a subscription for which the car is just a conduit.
We are not there yet, to be sure. And Tesla, to its credit, does offer a buy-for-life version of its assisted-driving subscription, currently priced at US$10,000. But Tesla has already once revoked the Autopilot feature from a car that was purchased second-hand, saying that those functions, paid for by the previous owner, are not transferrable.
That is essentially the situation with downloaded ebooks, which are not the customer’s to sell or pass on. And these depreciated property rights of digital ownership, let’s not forget, are the midway point between the complete ownership of physical media and the complete rental of subscriptions.
When this transition is compressed, it becomes apparent that it is almost straight-up robbery. Think of what BMW’s seat-warmer or heated-steering-wheel subscription entails: It’s for a feature already installed in the car, but the manufacturer wants to lock it through software and then make you pay a monthly fee to unlock it.
As we surrender more of ourselves to this expanding subscription life, each new development might by itself seem incremental and insignificant. But they compound. One day, in a world that we rent, we might look back at all that we used to own and realize that we’ve gone to sleep one night and then woken up in the future.
Just as the pandemic, and now the Ukraine war, disrupted supply chains and brought to fore the idea that we have become too dependent on international business relationships, it is now time to realize that we have become too dependent on this subscription-based life.
The solution to the supply chain problem is not to stop manufacturing products altogether, and this here is not an argument to reject all subscriptions. After all, just as Netflix might not be sustainable without a subscription model, maybe to recoup the research costs of its fancy artificial-intelligence software, Tesla does indeed need the extra money a subscription will bring.
Rather, the solution is the same as with the issue of supply chains: to build more resilient systems and to not let our dependency go too far.
Like the “right to repair” laws that stipulate companies must not go out of their way to make products difficult to repair by the end consumer, we should have “right to own” laws. For hardware such as cars, companies should be legally barred from having a mechanism that can turn them off remotely, and from using software to hold hostage already installed features, as with BMW’s seat warmers. Whatever subscription packages that companies offer with their hardware, they should also be mandated to offer a basic level of functionality that is independent of that.
For every software subscription a company sells, it should also offer an own-for-life alternative. Many companies do make available some of that, such as Tesla, Microsoft and even BMW. But we should enshrine such alternatives in law before they start doing away with them, as Adobe has done with Photoshop and nearly every other product.
In terms of values-based investing, investors should keep in mind ownership rights as one of the environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors. Subscriptionizing everything might be the path to profit, but the rise of the ESG movement in the past few years has shown that profit is not everything.
Customers should keep ownership rights in mind as well with respect to the businesses they support. After all, it is not just companies that have pushed this trend of subscriptions along, but also our normalization of it that pushed the companies.
Otherwise, more and more, we will lose ourselves to the cloud.
Consider another example about cars. Italian media reported in May that Ferrari had banned the singer Justin Bieber from buying any more vehicles, after he had painted his speedster neon blue and resold it without authorization.
Mr. Bieber had bought the car, and it was his property. But Ferrari, to maintain the brand’s prestige, has a litany of rules for owners that really drives home the message that they don’t actually own what they’ve bought. It’s a bit like the analog version of a downloaded ebook.
You can probably see where this is going. Ferrari actively opposes its customers’ property rights. And the trend in the auto world is toward fancy software and subscriptionizing everything. It might not be long before those like Mr. Bieber, who foolishly think they can paint their own cars, face a more serious punishment, like having important features taken away. Or other carmakers, who have subscriptionized everything, might start imposing Ferrari-like rules because they have easy and effective means to enforce them.
A subscription is inherently an unequal relationship. As more items get swallowed by that business model, more of our lives end up ruled by what is in the best-case scenario a benevolent dictator. Absent any recognition of that, this tyranny of subscriptions points toward a future in which we lose all concept of ownership and property rights and become, effectively, digital serfs.
Why are streaming services and subscription-based businesses losing so many customers at this stage of the pandemic, after gaining so many in its early days? Mahdis Habibinia investigated for Report on Business and spoke with The Decibel about what she found. Subscribe for more episodes.
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Perhaps it was Donald Trump refusing to ever admit he was wrong (about President Obama’s birthplace, immigrants, crowd size, weather maps, Russia, Kim Jong-un, climate change, Covid, voter fraud, infrastructure week – it’s a long list), but like avoiding certain things (orange skin, drinking bleach, committing treason), publicly admitting error has suddenly become fashionable. The New York Times recently featured eight “I Was Wrong” columns by pundits like Thomas Friedman, Michelle Goldberg, and Paul Krugman admitting they were wrong about Trump voters, Facebook, Al Franken, Chinese censorship, protests, capitalism, inflation, and Mitt Romney (and his dog). It was fun studying these admissions, although they all followed the same formula: I may have been wrong about this specific issue, but I was still right about the big picture! I only regret the Times wasn’t able to solicit a contribution from Susan Collins.
In this spirit, I have my own admission. Two summers ago – back when Susan Collins was more than a punchline and overt treason was just a gleam in Donnie’s eye – Microsoft and Google announced efforts to calm America’s troubled streets (George Floyd, Breonna Taylor) with free online programs to close the digital skills gap. Microsoft announced new curriculum from LinkedIn Learning and the GitHub Learning Lab and lowered the cost of certifications to bring digital skills to an additional 25M Americans. In Google’s case, it was 100,000 scholarships for new online certificates (data analyst, project manager, UX designer). In a Gap Letter titled The False Allure of Online Training, I lampooned the tech giants, saying “when the problems include racial injustice and generational damage, online training is biting off more than it can chew.” I went on to highlight the fact that neither company planned to actually hire any of the newly trained talent. “Microsoft and Google: if they’re not good enough for you, why should another employer want them?”
So allow me join the ranks of penitent pundits by acknowledging I was wrong to castigate Microsoft and Google for launching online courses (although right as rain about the big picture – skills gap, lack of clear pathways to socioeconomic mobility, death of the American Dream). Doing so violated a principle I hold dear: not letting the best be the enemy of the good. Sure, it would be great if Microsoft and Google could singlehandedly wrench America’s workforce into alignment with employer needs. But that’s asking too much, even for businesses that collectively generate over $200B in annual profit.
I now recognize that casting aspersions on Microsoft and Google is like blaming McGraw-Hill and HMH for what ails K-12 education. Actually worse, because Microsoft and Google have better curriculum. And it’s not just these two. AWS, Salesforce, VMware, Cisco, Oracle, Pega, Appian, Workday, Facebook, Adobe, CompTIA, SAP, Snowflake, and lots of other tech leaders have built out high-quality, skills-based online courses leading to certification exams for the most in-demand digital skills. Besides addressing skills employers want but can’t find, these courses have something else in common. They’re all 100% asynchronous.
In this era of digital transformation, self-paced online courses are just like textbooks: necessary but insufficient. Learners and job seekers who can successfully complete these courses on their own probably don’t need much help getting a good job. They’re not the ones we should be worried about. And for those who don’t yet have a good job – struggling frontline and gig workers without the necessary motivation, aptitude, and preparation to progress on their own (and where life is likely to get in the way even if they hit that trifecta) – I’d bet completion rates on asynchronous tech credentials are below the education equivalent of the Mendoza Line (the MOOC Line i.e., 5%).
Microsoft, Google and the rest can’t be expected to solve this problem. They’re not schools or training companies and will never be (principally because they turn up their noses at low gross margins). But they can recognize the problem. And so kudos to Google, which back in February announced $100M of funding for wraparound services, specifically funding Year Up and Merit America to provide synchronous engagement for job seekers. Wraparound services include instruction (i.e., classes), coaching, and interview prep. And while they have their attention, Year Up and Merit America will also work on soft skills like teamwork and communication. Google’s goal is 20,000 additional (low-income, underrepresented) certificate completers, or $5K per life transformed.
Deploying wraparound services to mine America’s newly discovered motherlode of tech training courseware for the benefit of tens of millions who’ve been shut out of the digital economy also has the potential to fix our broken workforce system. I’ve written previously about state and local workforce boards, which prioritize speed-to-placement and counseling over human capital development and therefore find themselves in a vicious circle of attracting only the lowest skill jobs and job seekers. Now a new service provider is seeking to play the role of Year Up for workforce boards. ShiftUp is delivering similar wraparound services for in-demand tech credentials, dramatically elevating 5% completion rates; ShiftUp is currently over 75% for these in-demand credentials. ShiftUp is now supporting workforce boards in New Jersey, Michigan, and Washington DC. Again, the price tag is in the neighborhood of $5K per life transformed.
With nonprofits and workforce boards taking the lead on making tech credentials accessible and meaningful for displaced and underserved Americans, where are colleges and universities in this pixelated picture? Largely nowhere. Sure, hundreds of schools have signed up for AWS Academy and Pathstream is helping over 30 colleges and universities deliver certifications from Facebook, Salesforce, Tableau, and Asana. But all told, well under 5% of accredited institutions are pairing instruction with any off-the-shelf online courses from tech leaders to create faster + cheaper pathways to good jobs.
Why are colleges missing the boat? First, there are dozens of tech companies. Developing a comprehensive tech credential offering would require going company-by-company. And within a university, who’s set up to do this?
I came to the answer two weeks ago during a tech tête-à-tête with a dean at a Midwestern university. The e-mail discussion involved this very subject: how her university could begin to offer these wondrous new tech credentials. I suggested she’d need to add synchronous instruction in order to make them work for students. Her response:
Synchronous is not quality online education. It is something else but not ONLINE. It is a hybrid and I am not sure why anyone would think that is the way to go. On demand, on your own time is imperative for today's consumer. Like MOOCs this will not last.
Why she cited MOOCs – a model that failed primarily due to lack of synchronous engagement – to make her point is a door I opted not to walk through. But I suggested that if she wanted to reach those seeking to land a good first job, she might take a different view, and cited Google’s $100M investment.
I have been in the business a long time, this is the flavor of the month like MOOCs which I knew were not going to last (and a lot more than 100M got spent on MOOCs). We would be happy to create asynchronous versions for our [hundreds of] corporate partners.
And with that clarifying statement, I pinpointed my correspondent: dean of a continuing education division with a mandate to serve corporate partners, make money, and contribute that money back to the core university. She’s serving customers and her customers’ employees are different in many ways from the typical Merit America participant: early 30s with a decade or more working in restaurants and retail. One way in particular they’re different: they’re much more likely to have the motivation, aptitude, and preparation to complete asynchronous online courses unaided.
Unfortunately, if you talk to a college or university about Microsoft, Google, AWS, Salesforce and the like, this is where you end up: the periphery, a borderland known as continuing education. There’s little sense that these remarkable new educational resources could be useful for full-time students or help the institution fulfill its mission. And that’s a shame.
Which leads me to a third reason for university inaction on tech credentials. As Postsecondary Analytics’ Nate Johnson said on last week’s Inside Higher Education (The Key) podcast, amidst enrollment wreckage, there are bright spots in student demand: areas like technology. “But those are the most costly fields for... instruction... You have to hire people who have those skills.”
So even if colleges could figure out how to gather these credentials and somehow activate the core instead of continuing education, they’d still have to find instructors. And where are colleges going to find people to teach AWS, Pega, Snowflake, and Workday? Not from Ph.D programs! Experts are out there, but they’re scarce (hence skills gap). And they’ll be hard for colleges to recruit: they’re practitioners, not career educators, and they’re already making a much better living than career educators. Colleges would have to appeal to their better angels. And to do that, they’ll probably have to figure out how to serve students who really need the leg up these programs can provide.
In response to these challenges, Hire-Train-Deploy leader SkillStorm — an Achieve Partners portfolio company — came up with an answer. SkillStorm entered into agreements with AWS, Pega, Salesforce, Appian, and CompTIA and is setting up white-label tech cert programs for university partners. What SkillStorm calls its Accelerator program solves problems #1 and #3: the first one-stop shop for the most in-demand tech certifications with a large bench of qualified instructors. Then SkillStorm runs synchronous programs (one hour per day, five days per week). By working with multiple colleges and aggregating enrollments, SkillStorm is able to launch cohorts weekly. (The one problem SkillStorm hasn’t solved yet is continuing education; that’s where SkillStorm is plugging in.)
With partners like Pathstream and SkillStorm Accelerator, colleges and universities have no excuse for avoiding Microsoft, Google, and the other companies leading digital transformation. And while higher education will instinctively push these programs to continuing ed, as soon as these programs come online, the appeal for students who’ve paid for longer and more expensive degree bundles will become obvious. As these last-mile skills could not be more meaningful for landing good jobs, core students will find them and either force schools to include them in degree programs or perhaps convince colleges to situate them as building blocks in stackable credentials (e.g., upside-down degrees).
Come to think of it, after unjustly accusing them two years ago, the only one with an excuse for avoiding Microsoft and Google is me.
Homes in different parts of the world used to look different from each other out of necessity, built to optimize for the challenges and benefits of local climate. When residential climate control systems became commonplace that changed. Where a home in tropical south Florida once required very different building methods (and materials) compared to a home in the cold mountains of New England, essentially identical construction methods are now used for single-family homes in any climate. The result is inefficient and virtually indistinguishable housing from coast to coast, regardless of climate. As regions throughout the world are facing increasingly dire housing shortages, the race is on to find solutions that are economical and available to us right now.
The mission of CalEarth, one of the non-profits that Hackaday has teamed up with for this year’s Hackaday Prize, is to address that housing shortage by building energy-efficient homes out of materials already available in the areas that they will be built. CalEarth specializes in building adobe, or earth, homes that have a large thermal mass and an inexpensive bill of materials. Not only does this save on heating and cooling costs, but transportation costs for materials can be reduced as well. Some downside to this method of construction are increased labor costs and the necessity of geometric precision of the construction method, both of which are tackled in this two-month design challenge.
One of the biggest time sinks when building this type of adobe house is that the construction requires long bags to be filled with earth, traditionally done with two or more people in order to keep the bag open and allow it to fill properly. The CalEarth Dream Team tackled this issue by creating an “earth funnel” which allows someone to hold it open with one hand while shoveling earth into the bag with the other. A rubber band around the bag allows the long bag to unravel itself as its filled, which saves the labor of one person. The funnel is made from laser cut material — although it could be hand cut with a simple pattern — and assembled using only a rivet gun.
While the design of the funnel works and shows tremendous promise for this type of building method, there are some design improvements to work out in the future. Figuring out a more ideal size is at the top of the list, as some users found it to be slightly too large, along with adding more handles to the funnel itself. Another problem is that the rubber band has a tendency to slide off, so that system needs to be fine tuned as well. Finally, the team hopes to ship these out with detailed instructions on their use so that their future users know both how to assemble the funnel and how to use it properly for maximum effect.
While the funnel saves a tremendous amount of time, the other major source of lost labor is making sure that the walls have the correct shape. The SuperAdobe building method involves taking the long bags of earth and laying them on top of each other, building up to create the walls. Once the walls are in place, narrower and narrower rings are laid in order to create a domed roof. In between each ring a strip of barbed wire is laid which prevents the bags from slipping. However, the rings need to be precisely positioned to maintain the integrity of the structure, so typically a compass (the kind used for transferring measurements, not the kind for path finding) is used made out of two poles. The traditional tool is cumbersome to use, however, so the CalEarth team designed an attachment which solves a number of these problems.
The new compass, called a “pipe sail”, has more degrees of freedom than otherwise available, allowing the measuring pole to rotate around the base pole more easily and also fold flat when not in use, which allows much more freedom of movement inside the structure during construction. It is also much easier to raise and lower as the bags are laid down, saving the team time when measuring the new walls. Finally, it has some dust resistance as well, allowing it to last longer with less maintenance.
Of course, the pipe compass still involves a lot of tedious and non-automated work. This is where the high-tech compass comes in. The team built a LIDAR-based compass in addition to the pipe compass to similarly measure the distance from the center of the structure to the wall or dome under construction. When the earth tube is in the correct position, the compass measures the distance from the center of the structure and shines a green laser on it when it is placed at the correct distance. This allows the builders to get an automated, visual cue that they have placed them properly without using a physical tool. The builders can use their hand to get an indication of where the bag should be placed before actually laying it down, and then get it as precise as possible once it has been laid down.
During the two-month challenge window, the team only had enough time to get a proof-of-concept for the LIDAR-based compass to work. Some planned improvements to it relate to making it tolerate the environment better by improving the housing, rotating platform, and mounts. Some other improvements focus on the reliability and performance of the device itself, and the team plans to Excellerate laser stability and accuracy and their algorithm’s accuracy in future versions as well. Of course, all of the designs and code for everything has been made open source and can be found at the project’s page.
As housing costs rise and city centers grow this important work gives a larger number of people more access to housing that might not otherwise have it. Using the ground beneath our feet, wherever we happen to be, is a viable solution for sustainable housing that suits the climate and environment that home happens to be in, without needing to truck as many supplies from distant areas. The icing on the cake is that the future home dwellers can even have a hand in the building of their own homes, and they might just last longer than any modern stick frame house to boot.
Engineering productivity platform Uplevel Inc. announced a $20 million early-stage fundraising today that brings its total amount raised to $34 million.
The Series A round was led by Cota Capital and saw participation from seed investors such as Norwest, Madrona and Voyager, plus new individual investors including Bruce Chizen, former chief executive officer of Adobe Inc.
Uplevel is a five-year-old startup that has largely stayed under the radar until now despite offering a unique productivity platform that could be helpful to many kinds of enterprises. Using Uplevel’s tools, it’s possible for engineering teams to analyze the effectiveness of their individual developers by grabbing data from the various software tools they use
Uplevel’s software analyzes this data to show how developers spend their time, and it can highlight if a particular worker is perhaps spending too much time in meetings, or doesn’t have enough focus time, for instance. It can also determine if someone has been assigned more tasks than can be realistically handled.
Uplevel co-founder and Chief Executive Joe Levy explained that the platform’s main advantage is that it helps to prevent employee burnout. “We are helping organizations work more effectively, retain their engineering talent, and deliver products their teams are proud to build,” he said.
Indeed, many executives today increasingly worried about both the effectiveness and wellness of their workforces amid challenging new working conditions. Companies are of course very desparate to ensure their best employees don’t burn themselves out through an overload of work, but they have no easy way to determine if individual employees are under too much pressure. Although there are many tools available that can measure progress and productivity, Uplevel stands apart for its focus on the mental health of employees.
It’s this data-driven focus on healthy productivity that has driven Uplevel’s growth over the last few quarters, officials said.
Uplevel’s software goes further than just identifying which employees are under stress, as it can also make recommendations to ensure healthier work conditions. The company is also apparently very desparate to practice what it preaches. Earlier this year, it began testing a four-day workweek for its own employees, who worked Monday to Thursday without additional hours or a salary reduction.
In a blog post, Levy said the experiment went “better than expected,” and the 35-person company got just as much work done, while increasing job satisfaction. The experiment has now been extended until the end of the year.
Uplevel said it has managed to double its customer base over the last year, adding the likes of Remitly Inc., Avalara Inc. and Qualtrics Inc. In addition to today’s funding, Uplevel said it is hiring a new chief technology officer, Nimrod Vered, who previously held roles at Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc., among others.
Uplevel was coy on how it plans to use the capital from today’s round, simply saying it will help engineering organizations around the world better meet their product goals without burning out their teams.