Zenefits rolls out a performance management tool

When we last saw Zenefits, the company essentially handed off one of its initial core selling points — insurance brokerage — off to partners. Since that rebrand rolled out, Zenefits seems to be following the sort of drip-drip-drip of updates that many startups trying to create a sort of “home” for a core employee experience.

That continues today with the launch of performance tracking for employees, which has been built in-house as it looks to pick off niches as it looks to be a one-stop shop for HR in small businesses. That includes reviews, goals, and the company says will in the future also incorporate check-ins and peer reviews. At smaller companies, these may often seem to be oversights or afterthoughts, but Zenefits seems to want to streamline the process and introduce these kinds of sophisticated corporate behaviors into smaller businesses.

Part of the reason the company handed off insurance brokerage amid its big rebranding was also to help it grow up with companies. As startups and small businesses get bigger and bigger, it made more sense to start working with local brokers or other providers to handle their insurance. CEO Jay Fulcher at the time said this was a sticking point that led to potential risks of companies graduating out of the platform, so to speak, as they may have felt duct-taped to that as an entry fee.

“This request has come up repeatedly from our customers, and really came to light as a result of surveying over 300 customers in Q2 this year, where more than 93% showed interest in this area,” COO Jeff Carr said. “With customers changing their perception of Zenefits as their HR partner as opposed to just their broker, we wanted to ensure we were delivering on that with increased functionality.”

So as Zenefits grows with these smaller businesses, they’ll increasingly be asking for tools like this as the org chart gets bigger and bigger. Zenefits is increasingly tapping partners to deal with some of the nitty-gritty that it doesn’t want to handle. But it also needs to identify some of the low-hanging fruit that it should pick off on its own if it wants to fit into the kinds of daily use cases and activities of businesses and HR managers.

ShiftLeft promises to protect your code even when you ignore security threats

Every day companies are uploading fresh code to the cloud. The pace is startling and that tends to lead to errors. We have seen security software in the past that will check that code for problems and security holes and recommend fixes before launching, but what happens when your programming team doesn’t have time or money to make those fixes (or simply ignores them)?

ShiftLeft, a startup that emerged from stealth today says it’s going to protect you anyway.

That’s right, you can ignore their security recommendations and they will know it and build in protection at launch, says CEO and founder Manish Gupta. He says they are able to do that because they conduct a study of the code and all its dependencies before run time, then create an agent that travels with the software that protects it against any vulnerabilities it found.

This works regardless of whether the application runs in a traditional virtual machine or in containers as a set of microservices, making it a good solution for a modern DevOps environment.

Gupta acknowledges that coders are paid to crank out code, not to make sure it’s secure. He wants ShiftLeft to help in this go-go world to protect the code regardless. “Once we analyze the source code, we will tell you we see this issue, and you should fix it. If you don’t fix it, we know this is an issue, so our runtime is protecting you from that vulnerability,” Gupta said.

The company also announced a healthy $9.3 million Series A investment led by Bain Capital Ventures and Mayfield along with individual investors including Sanjay Poonen, COO of VMware; Tobias Knaup, CTO of Mesosphere; and Prabhu Goel, founder of Verilog. In addition, ShiftLeft announced that Enrique Salem from Bain Capital Ventures and Ursheet Parikh from Mayfield have joined the company’s Board of Directors.

Bain Capital Venture’s Salem says that his firm liked ShiftLeft’s approach to work within rapid modern coding methodologies. “Lack of security expertise, coupled with alert fatigue caused by traditional security solutions, is fundamentally at odds with today’s rapid pace of software development. Recognizing the need for a more accurate and an equally agile security methodology, ShiftLeft has built a solution purpose-built to operationalize security for the new, highly agile cloud applications,” Salem said in a statement.

The company, which is based in Santa Clara, currently has 24 employees and half a dozen early customers as it emerges from stealth.

Featured Image: Lori Sparkia/Getty Images

LogicHub CPO Monica Jain: Focus on Results

Monica Jain is the chief product officer and cofounder of LogicHub.

In this exclusive interview, Jain shares her insights on how women in the cybersecurity field can get results and command respect.

LogicHub Chief
Product Officer Monica Jain

LogicHub Chief Product
Monica Jain

TechNewsWorld: Describe your career. How did you get interested in the field of cybersecurity?

Monica Jain: When I left college with my master’s degree in computer science, I was always interested in analyzing the data. I was introduced to a company that was a pioneer in the market, and that’s where my career in security started. I fell in love with security because it’s all about finding and analyzing the data, and about crunching the data. That’s how I started with security. I’ve never left it since then.

TNW: Why did you cofound LogicHub, and how is the company unique in the world of security?

Jain: It was really driven by the passion I had to meet my customers. I had been out there for 15-plus years and had been meeting customers throughout the globe. I like to understand where there are pain points, and there were so many times that I thought technology could help them with these pain points.

That observation kept building throughout the years, until 2015, when I thought something had to be done to fill the gaps and solve the problems with technology. Now it’s time to build a technology that I have been thinking about.

LogicHub is a security-intelligent automation platform. We’re trying to automate the logic that security professionals are applying in their day-to-day job. We’re trying to sit next to that analyst and understand what logic he’s applying, capturing it and replicating it. I have seen many technologies in this field, but to be honest, we cannot ignore the intelligence of the analyst.

We need to put his knowledge at machine speed and replicate it. That’s the whole premise — to capture that knowledge, automate it and apply it, so the analyst can be freed up to analyze new things.

Let’s say an analyst has to look at an alert and decide if it has to be escalated and sent to another team, or if it’s a benign alert. That process requires a lot of analysis and correlating lots of different pieces of data. The analyst will start with one point and decide if this IP is OK or not, and then he might come back with another question — who owns the IP?

There’s a chain of decisions across the chain of data that he has to analyze in order to come up with a decision. I will sit with the analyst and determine his logic and tribal knowledge. We codify all of that intelligence and turn it into machine code. So if the same event happens, we can apply that logic ahead of time, and he can focus on newer things that he has not seen before.

TNW: What challenges have you faced in your career as a woman in the security field?

Jain: This is an interesting question for me, and I’ve thought about it many times, particularly when I read blogs about this topic. I would acknowledge that it happens with many women — they are challenged. For me, though, I have always been well-respected and acknowledged by my customers and colleagues. I never had challenges particularly because I was a woman. I will say that respect comes with results.

We should always focus on our hard work and results, and hopefully we’ll get respect from people around us. I was fortunate to have great mentors around me, and most of them were men. They have helped and supported me throughout this journey — even when I was going to start this company. I feel that I have been fortunate to get a lot of support from my customers, colleagues and mentors.

TNW: How can women be supported in STEM fields — particularly those related to security?

Jain: People ask if they should jump into something or not, and I always tell them that if you are passionate about it, you should follow that passion. We should put our energy into producing good results.

We should also be mindful of our mentors. If you’re not getting the support you need, find a new mentor. Find the right alignment with them where you can actually thrive. In the end, the results are what matter, and good mentors focus on results.

TNW: In what ways do you mentor others?

Jain: I do have a lot of young women who call me with questions about their careers. I have three or four people each month reaching out, and I do ask them, what are you passionate about? They tell me, and I tell them how to follow their passion, and how to follow that passion to get results.

Vivian Wagner has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. Her main areas of focus are technology, business, CRM, e-commerce, privacy, security, arts, culture and diversity. She has extensive experience reporting on business and technology for a variety
of outlets, including The Atlantic, The Establishment and O, The Oprah Magazine. She holds a PhD in English with a specialty in modern American literature and culture. She received a first-place feature reporting award from the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists.
Email Vivian.

A game about AI making paperclips is the most addictive you’ll play today

There’s a well-known thought experiment in the world of artificial intelligence that poses a simple, but potentially very scary, question: what if we asked a super-intelligent AI to make paperclips?

This may not sound terrifying at first, but as Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom (who first described the parable) explains, it all depends on how well we’ve trained the AI. If we’ve given it common sense, it might ask us: “How many paperclips do you want?” If it doesn’t know to ask, it might just make paperclips forever. And, if it’s a super-intelligent AI that we’ve accidentally forgotten to program with any human ethics or values, it might decide that the most efficient way to make paperclips is to wipe out humanity and terraform the planet into one giant paperclip-making factory.

Sound fun? Well good, because now there’s a game about it.

Designed by Frank Lantz, director of the New York University Game Center, Paperclips might not be the sort of title you’d expect about a rampaging AI. It’s free to play, it lives in your browser, and all you have to look at is numbers. (Though trust me, you’ll learn to love them.) It’s an idle clicker game — one that draws on humanity’s apparently bottomless desire to click buttons and watch numbers go up. Think Cookie Clicker or Egg Inc, but dedicated to paperclips.

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Paperclips on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched paperclips glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.”

You’ll start off making them the old fashioned way: one clip for one click. But pretty soon you’ll be purchasing autoclippers to do the work for you while you turn your attentions to running an algorithmic hedge fund, then building a quantum computer, and then (much later) exploring the known Universe in search of new matter to turn into more and more paperclips. How to play is pretty self-explanatory, but here are some tips if you’re getting stuck:

  • Paperclips is essentially a game about balance and efficiency. You have to leave the game alone for long stretches of time, yes, but you also need to be sure you’re not wasting resources while you do so. Keep an eye on your supply chain to make sure there are no bottlenecks, and be on the lookout for any unused capacity that can be turned to your ultimate goal: making those sweet, sweet clips.
  • Play at least until you get hypnodrones. When you unlock these, the game really opens up onto a new level. You thought you were making paperclips before? Hoo buddy, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
  • At some point you will run into a wall that you can’t optimize your way past. You may think you’ve got to the end of the game (for example, when you’ve turned all available matter in the Universe into paperclips — a logical endpoint, sure) but there’s more to do. Unfortunately, getting past these barriers often requires patience, and sometimes you’ll have to leave the game for hours to get onto the next level.
  • Don’t start playing if you’ve got anything important to do today. Or tomorrow.

All in all, the game made me think that if the paperclip maximizer doomsday scenario does ever come to pass, it will, at least, be pleasingly ironic. We go to the trouble of creating super-intelligence and it responds by cauterizing the Universe in the name of office supplies. There have been worse metaphors for the human condition. Plus, if we teach the AI to enjoy making paperclips (and some say these sorts of human-analogous incentives will be necessary to create true thinking machines) then at least it’ll be having a fun time.

Like you, it’ll have fun watching those numbers getting bigger.

Google shuts YouTube channel implicated in Kremlin political propaganda ops

A YouTube channel that had been implicated in Russia disinformation operations to target the U.S. 2016 election has been taken down by Google.

Earlier this week The Daily Beast claimed the channel, run by two black video bloggers calling themselves Williams and Kalvin Johnson, was part of Russian disinformation operations — saying this had been confirmed to it by investigators examining how social media platforms had been utilized in a broad campaign by Russia to try to influence US politics.

The two vloggers apparently had multiple social media accounts on other platforms. And their content was pulled from Facebook back in August after being identified as Russian-backed propaganda, according to the Daily Beast’s sources.

Videos posted to the YouTube channel, which was live until earlier this week, apparently focused on criticizing and abusing Hillary Clinton, including accusing her of being a racist as well as spreading various conspiracy theories about the Clintons, along with pro-Trump commentary.

The content appeared intended for an African American audience, although the videos did not gain significant traction on YouTube, according to The Daily Beast, which said they had only garnered “hundreds” of views prior to the channel being closed (vs the pair’s Facebook page having ~48,000 fans before it was closed, and videos uploaded there racking up “thousands” of views).

A Google spokesman ignored the specific questions we put to it about the YouTube channel, sending only this generic statement: “All videos uploaded to YouTube must comply with our Community Guidelines and we routinely remove videos flagged by our community that violate those policies. We also terminate the accounts of users who repeatedly violate our Guidelines or Terms of Service.”

So while the company appears to be confirming it took the channel down it’s not providing a specific reason beyond TOS violations at this stage. (And the offensive nature of the content offers more than enough justification for Google to shutter the channel.)

However, earlier this week the Washington Post reported that Google had uncovered evidence that Russian operatives spent money buying ads on its platform in an attempt to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election, citing people familiar with the investigation.

The New York Times also reported that Google has found accounts believed to be associated wth the Russian government — claiming Kremlin agents purchased $4,700 worth of search ads and more traditional display ads. It also said the company has found a separate $53,000 worth of ads with political material that were purchased from Russian internet addresses, building addresses or with Russian currency — though the newspaper’s source said it’s not clear whether the latter spend was definitively associated with the Russian government.

Google has yet to publicly confirm any of these reports. Though it has not denied them either. Its statement so far has been that: “We are taking a deeper look to investigate attempts to abuse our systems, working with researchers and other companies, and will provide assistance to ongoing inquiries.”

The company has been called to testify to a Senate Intelligence Committee on November 1, along with Facebook, and Twitter. The committee is examining how social media platforms may have been used by foreign actors to influence the 2016 US election.

Last month Facebook confirmed Russian agents had utilized its platform in an apparent attempt to sew social division across the U.S. — revealing it had found purchases worth around $100,000 in targeted advertising or some 3,000+ ads.

Twitter has also confirmed finding some evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 US election on its platform.

The wider question for all these user generated content platforms is how their stated preference for free speech (and hands off moderation) can co-exist with weaponized disinformation campaigns conducted by hostile foreign entities with apparently unfettered access to their platforms — especially given the disinformation does not appear limited to adverts, with content itself also being implicated (including, apparently, people being paid to create and post political disinformation).

User generated content platforms have not historically sold themselves on the pro quality of content they make available. Rather their USP has been the authenticity of the voices they offer access to (though it’s also fair to say they offer a conglomerate mix). But the question is what happens if social media users start to view that mix with increasing mistrust — as something that might be being deliberately adulterated or infiltrated by malicious elements?

The tech platforms’ lack of a stated editorial agenda of their own could result in the perception that the content they surface is biased anyway — and in ways many people might equally view with mistrust. The risk is the tech starts to looks like a fake news toolkit for mass manipulation.

Travel experiences marketplace Withlocals picks up $4.2M in Series A funding

Withlocals, the the Netherlands-based startup that operates a marketplace for personalised travel experiences, has raised $4.2 million in Series A funding. The round was led by Inkef Capital, the Amsterdam-headquartered VC firm.

Pitching itself as an alternative to mass-market package holidays and tours, Withlocals says it wants to capture at least 20 percent of the online personalized tours and activities market, which, it reckons, is will be worth $6.8 billion by 2020, citing a report by Eye To Travel.

The startup currently lists 1,200 “fully-customizable,” private tours and activities — ie only you or your family/group are in attendance — led by 900 local hosts in 24 international cities. It plans to expand into 40 more cities in the next year, including New York, Florence, and Hong Kong.

Matthijs Keij, CEO of Withlocals, says that one size fits all mass tourism is coming to an end, and that travellers “are looking to get off the ‘TripAdvisor circuit’” in favour of more unique experiences.

“We created Withlocals so tourists can experience cities like the locals do,” he adds, arguing that this is a very different proposition to tour aggregators such as Viator or GetYourGuide, which are used by commercial companies to sell packaged group tours.

To that end, Withlocals says it is seeing over 10,000 people participating in experiences each month, and that it has increased booking volumes an average of 20 percent per month for the last 18 months.

Furthermore, the startup expects growth to accelerate as it expands into more cities, adds multiple languages to its website, and rolls out new mobile functionality. Currently, 42 percent of bookings are made via the Withlocals mobile app, but that number is expected to grow to 85 percent by the end of 2018.

Soon you’ll be able to charge your electric car at a Shell station in Manila

Image: Shutterstock / Jan Faukner

Good news for electric vehicles in the Philippines.

Shell will be installing 100 electric vehicle fast-charging stations across its service stations in the capital city of Manila.

According to Shell’s local arm, Pilipinas Shell Petroleum Corporation, the first installations will take place in December this year. 

The move was prompted by the Department of Energy, which is trying to address the lagging adoption of electric vehicles in Manila. 

The slow take up has largely been blamed on the lack of available public charging stations in the country, and the DoE is keen to implement policies to lay out the needed infrastructure.

According to the Philippines’ Department of Trade and Industry, 69,145 electric vehicles are expected to be sold in 2017.

That’s a small percentage of the total 7.69 million registered motor vehicles in the country — which are responsible for 71 percent of the country’s air pollution.

But the Electric Vehicle Association of the Philippines has stated that it plans to get one million electric vehicles on the road by 2020.

This isn’t the only country in which Shell has introduced charging units to its service stations.

The petroleum giant had earlier launched pilot projects for vehicle recharging stations in the UK, Netherlands and California.

Electric and hybrid-engine vehicles represent only a fraction of the world’s 1 billion car fleet now, but according to Shell, they will account for about a quarter in 2040.

We’re definitely going to need a lot more charging stations then.

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Mark Zuckerberg apologizes for that awkward VR tour of Puerto Rico

Mark Zuckerberg has apologized, in a Facebook comment, for his recent virtual reality tour of Puerto Rico

The Facebook CEO used the VR session to discuss Facebook’s relief efforts for Puerto Rico, which is recovering from Hurricane Maria, but his smiling avatar superimposed over the island’s ravaged streets did not sit well with everyone. 

“It seems it would be way more effective if we could see your real faces. It is so distracting to have virtual characters reporting on a real disaster,” one commenter said on Facebook. 

A few hours later, Zuckerberg responded to that comment. 

“I hear that. When you’re in VR yourself, the surroundings feel quite real. But that sense of empathy doesn’t extend well to people watching you as a virtual character on a 2D screen. That’s something we’ll need to work on over time.”

Image: screenshot/facebook

And in another reply on Facebook, Zuckerberg said he was sorry for offending anyone with the video. 

“One of the most powerful features of VR is empathy. My goal here was to show how VR can raise awareness and help us see what’s happening in different parts of the world. I also wanted to share the news of our partnership with the Red Cross to help with the recovery. Reading some of the comments, I realize this wasn’t clear, and I’m sorry to anyone this offended,” he wrote. 

Image: screenshot/facebook

That’s one of the problems of virtual reality — being inside and looking at it from the outside are two vastly different experiences, and despite’s Facebook’s efforts in the space, VR is still far from commonplace. There’s no reason to assume Zuckerberg didn’t mean well, and Facebook’s efforts to help Puerto Rico are commendable. But cartoonish VR was not the right platform to raise awareness of Puerto Rico’s plight. 

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Twitter’s new happening-now feature tells you what’s happening … now

Why it matters to you

If you’re into news and sports, then Twitter’s new Happening Now feature should be a useful addition to your timeline.

Your Twitter timeline is about to incorporate a new feature called Happening Now. Sitting at the top of your feed, Happening Now is a carousel of events that are happening … well … now.

At launch, the feature will focus on sports games, though Twitter promises it’ll soon expand Happening Now to include breaking news events, entertainment updates, and so on.

If one of the events in the carousel catches your eye, tap on it and you’ll be taken to an unfolding list of algorithmically-organized tweets connected to what’s happening. Sports games, for example, will show the latest score at the top of the display and a related stream of tweets underneath.

The company said it’ll tailor the Happening Now suggestions to each user’s interests, so hopefully there’ll be more hits than misses sitting at the top of your timeline. If you’re not sure about a suggestion, you can tap on its downward-facing arrow to find out why Twitter thinks you’ll be interested. If you’re still not persuaded, simply reject it to help Twitter do better next time.

For users familiar with Twitter’s growing number of features, Happening Now may sound a bit like Moments, which currently lives under the Trending section in Search. Moments also focuses on particular events, though offered tweets have been specially chosen by a Twitter team in an effort to present an easy-to-follow breakdown of the selected topic. Presentation is a little different with Moments, as each tweet fills the screen and is more likely to include visuals images.

Both Happening Now and Moments are attempts by Twitter to make the service more friendly for new users, which it desperately needs, and also to encourage further engagement with the app among its existing user base.

Happening Now, which is available for iOS and Android in the U.S., has been released ahead of another new feature coming to Twitter that we learned about yesterday. Though currently without an official name or projected release date, the company confirmed on Monday that it’s working on a bookmarking button to let you save tweets for later reference. It’s a feature many on Twitter have been asking for, with many having had to make do with less-than-perfect workarounds.

Australian court rules an unsent text message on phone counts as a will

A text message counts as a will in Australian court.
A text message counts as a will in Australian court.

Image: Getty Images/EyeEm

An unsent message of a deceased man in Australia has been ruled as a valid will. 

It means he will leave his estate to his brother and nephew as opposed to his son and wife, who he apparently had a difficult relationship with. 

The decision was handed down by a judge at the Supreme Court of Queensland, following no evidence of any other will created by the deceased man.

The man, who tragically took his own life, was found with the phone by his widow in October 2016. The following day, a friend of the widow was asked to look through the deceased man’s contact list to see who should be notified of his death. 

It was there the unsent text message was found, and a screenshot was taken. 

“Dave Nic you and Jack keep all that I have house and superannuation, put my ashes in the back garden with Trish Julie will take her stuff only she’s ok gone back to her ex AGAIN I’m beaten . A bit of cash behind TV and a bit in the bank Cash card pin 3636 MRN190162Q 10/10/2016 My will,” read the text message.

The widow, who contested the will, sought to rely on the fact that because the deceased man did not send the text message, he didn’t mean it.

But the judge in this case, Justice Susan Brown, was satisfied the unsent text constituted as a valid document and the deceased man had made up his mind on where his property would go after his death, due to the words “my will” at the end of the message.

Also noted by the judge was the contact between the deceased man, his brother and nephew, prior to his death, and that the text was written close to the date of his death. It was also deemed likely the deceased man intended for the message to be found with him.

“In all of the circumstances I consider that the text message was intended by the deceased to operate as his will upon his death,” Brown said.

Queensland law states that wills need to be in writing and signed off by two witnesses. If a person dies without a will, they are subject to their assets being divided as per the state’s Succession Act.

To talk to someone about self-injury or if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For international resources, this list is a good place to start.

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