Noah Smith Interviews Marc Andreessen

Every now and then (and I wish it was more often), I like reading something so much that I don’t just take notes, I put them down here rather than in Roam. It forces me take more careful, structured notes, and the act of writing it all down allows for more thoughts to bubble up – which is the whole point, no?

Noah Smith’s interview of Marc Andreessen definitely qualifies. It was interesting throughout, and I related with some of the points/concepts more than I would have wanted to1.

Before we begin, a quick aside: most of my thoughts and reactions to the interview are because of what I do, and where I’m located. I am in charge of one course at my University, and am also in charge of placements. This University is located in India. So my excerpts, and my reaction to those excerpts are contingent on these two things.

We’ll follow the usual format: excerpts, and then my thoughts.


Consider the three primary markers of the American Dream, or more generally middle class success — housing, education, and health care. You have written at length on how all three of these success markers seem further and further out of reach for many regular people. I think — and you would agree? — that these three deficits are not only causing problems for how people live and how the economy functions, but are fouling our politics quite dramatically.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

Education, in India at any rate, can either scale, or it can maintain quality. It has never been able to do both. How to increase scale without losing quality, and how to maintain affordable quality without gaining scale – both of these are really, really difficult questions to answer. The impossible trilemma of higher education in India, as it were. The BSc programme at the Gokhale Institute is (in my opinion, and it is of course a biased one) affordable quality. Far from perfect, I’ll be the first one to admit, and could always be a whole lot better, but I genuinely do think we’re doing good work. But scaling is impossible. And we all know of educational institutes that have managed to scale really well, but don’t do so well when it comes to quality.

And when I say quality, it is very much a “you know it when you see it” definition I am going with. Not NAAC reports or percentage of students placed.


Housing, education, and health care are each ferociously complex, but what they have in common is skyrocketing prices in a world where technology is driving down prices of most other products and services.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

Before you begin to read the rest of this post, please do learn more about the Baumol cost disease effect. That is certainly one of the factors at play. This post is the probably the best essay to read about the topic, but be warned: micro, when done right is (also) hard.

This chart from the interview is easier to think about if you’ve studied the Baumol effect well:

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

Software is a lever on the real world.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and (note that the emphasis on “lever” is in the original)

The Archimedes reference is obvious, but that’s not the reason I want to focus so much on just this one sentence. How exactly is software a lever on the entire world? Marc gives the examples of Lyft and Airbnb in the interview, but they’re the outcomes for having deployed software. The inner mechanism (I think) is that software goes a very long way towards reducing transaction costs, search costs and therefore overall friction in economic transactions.

The guy driving the rickshaw, and waiting for a customer at a traffic intersection isn’t aware of the person two blocks away who is outside their apartment building, waiting for a ride. Search costs. These are minimized because of the app.

The whole “bhaiya, xyz jaana hai” – “Itna duur, itna late, double bhada” – “kya bhaiya, itna thodi lagta hai” song and dance is avoided (although not always in a way that is fair to the rickshaw driver). Transaction costs. These are minimized because of the app.

And so more transactions take place than they would have if Uber/Lyft/Ola had not been around. And the same is true for Zomato, or Swiggy, or Airbnb or… you get the picture. This (I think) is the lever at play. More gets done because software is involved.

There are legitimate worries about whether the system is always fair, always perfect – and the short answer is always “no”. A better question to ask is if the world is better for these services being around – and the short answer (I think) is “yes”. The best question to ask is how these services could be made better – and Andreessen has suggestions later on in the interview about this.


Software is alchemy that turns bytes into actions by and on atoms.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

A lovely way to think about what software does, when used well.


Everywhere software touches the real world, the real world gets better, and less expensive, and more efficient, and more adaptable, and better for people. And this is especially true for the real world domains that have been least touched by software until now — such as housing, education, and health care.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

The Baumol effect has some potentially disturbing implications:

When we recognize that all prices are relative prices the following simple yet deep facts follow:
If productivity increases in some industries more than others then, ceteris paribus, some prices must increase.
Over time, all real prices cannot fall.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2019/05/the-baumol-effect.html

As a society it appears that with greater wealth we have wanted to consume more of the goods like education and health care that have relatively slow productivity growth. Thus, preferences have magnified the Baumol effect.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2019/05/the-baumol-effect.html

But I think what Marc Andreessen is (in effect) saying is this: sure, even accounting for the Baumol effect, are there ways to reduce search and transaction costs in education, healthcare and housing? And if yes, can we drive down prices in these sectors while maintaining (or even increasing!) quality? That’s the power and potential of software.

And yes, each one of us will react with differing levels of skepticism to the proposition. That’s fine, and I’d say desirable. But the idea is worth thinking about, no? (And if you say no, it’s not, I’d love to hear why you think so.)


It’s more the importance of communication as the foundation of everything that people do, and how we open up new ways for people to communicate, collaborate, and coordinate. Like software, communication technology is something that people tend to pooh-pooh, or even scorn — but, when you compare what any one of us can do alone, to what we can do when we are part of a group or a community or a company or a nation, there’s no question that communication forms the backbone of virtually all progress in the world. And so improving our ability to communicate is fundamental.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

Remember the “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room” quote2? The potential advantage of Clubhouse, Spaces (or whatever it will be called on all the apps that copy the concept) is that it solves for the geographic constraint when it comes to your menu of rooms to choose from. That’s what makes Twitter so great too – you never have to worry about being the smartest person on Twitter (and I mean that in the nicest way possible!).

It is a great time to be young and angry about the quality of the education system, because the internet can solve some of your problems better than was ever possible in the past.


It’s so striking that in our primarily textual technological world, people are instantly enthusiastic about the opportunity to participate in oral culture online — there is something timeless about talking in groups, whether it’s around a campfire 5,000 years ago or on an app today

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

At the Gokhale Institute, we were lucky enough to listen to a talk by Visvak where he spoke about some of the positive aspects of Clubhouse during the recent elections in Tamil Nadu. The ability to listen to, and possibly chat with, people with skin in the game who are actually Doing The Work, is truly remarkable. And again, what we have isn’t perfect, and it could be better, and there will be problems. The question to ask is if the world is better with Clubhouse (and it’s imitations) or without? And the better question to ask is how to improve upon it. But when I have the opportunity to listen to Krish Ashok talk about food on Twitter Spaces, and I see people just straight up ask Krish Ashok to host a Spaces about chai – well, what a time to be alive. No? (And if you say no, it’s not, I’d love to hear why you think so.)


Substack is causing enormous amounts of new quality writing to come into existence that would never have existed otherwise — raising the level of idea formation and discourse in a world that badly needs it. So much of legacy media, due to the technological limitations of distribution technologies like newspapers and television, makes you stupid. Substack is the profit engine for the stuff that makes you smart.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

I don’t exactly disagree with Marc Andreessen over here; but I have a lot of questions. I’ll list them here:

  • Substack is a substitute for blogs or newsletters, but with the additional ability to charge payments from subscribers for some (or all) of your posts. Is that a good definition of what Substack is?
  • Not all Substack writers will initially get enough paying subscribers. In fact, I think it is safe to say that most will never get (enough) paying subscribers. If the first sentence in the excerpt above is to be agreed with, what other incentive is at play for “enormous amounts of new quality writing” to come through? This is not intended as sarcasm or implied criticism – I really would like to know.
  • Especially in India, I completely agree that legacy media makes you stupid. It is the middle part of that sentence that I am not so sure about: I do not think it is just the technological limitations of distribution technologies that is at play. It’s a much broader question, but what other factors would you think are at play, and how does Substack help mitigate those other problems?
  • Is bundling inevitable on Substack? Shouldn’t it be? How will this play out? Will Revue stand a better chance as a bundle because it can be combined with so many other offerings?

This isn’t a complete list of questions, and I am not sure of the answers. But this is the part of the interview that I understood the least, for sure.


A longish excerpt in a longish post, but a very important one:

M.A.: My “software eats the world” thesis plays out in business in three stages:
1. A product is transformed from non-software to (entirely or mainly) software. Music compact discs become MP3’s and then streams. An alarm clock goes from a physical device on your bedside table to an app on your phone. A car goes from bent metal and glass, to software wrapped in bent metal and glass.
2. The producers of these products are transformed from manufacturing or media or financial services companies to (entirely or mainly) software companies. Their core capability becomes creating and running software. This is, of course, a very different discipline and culture from what they used to do.
3. As software redefines the product, and assuming a competitive market not protected by a monopoly position or regulatory capture, the nature of competition in the industry changes until the best software wins, which means the best software company wins. The best software company may be an incumbent or a startup, whoever makes the best software.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

For a great, and relatively early example of this playing out in practice, please listen to this podcast episode:

One simple viral video drove a pizza company to reinvent itself as a tech company. Walter Isaacson tells the story in this episode of Trailblazers.

https://www.delltechnologies.com/en-us/perspectives/podcasts-trailblazers-s01-e03-fast-food-delivery/

See this, for example, from the transcript:

So this is the part of the Domino’s story that struck me more than anything, when he simply declared for all to hear, we no longer think of ourselves as a pizza company. We think of ourselves as a technology company. I said, excuse me? Well, turns out, they’re headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They’ve got 800 people working in headquarters. Fully 400 of those, half of their headquarters employees, are engaged in software analytics and big data. They really– once they finally got the product right, they really are, from this point going forward, as much a technology company as they are a food company. And many of the initiatives have to do with making it as easy, as convenient, as kind of natural and impulsive almost to order Domino’s, much more so than any other pizza company.

https://www.delltechnologies.com/en-us/perspectives/podcasts-trailblazers-s01-e03-fast-food-delivery/

But, but, but – and this is where the “what I do and where I’m from part” really comes into play – has higher education in India successfully (or even partially) gone through Marc Andreessen’s three stage transformation?

Short answer, no.

Long answer: because “assuming a competitive market not protected by a monopoly position or regulatory capture” doesn’t apply in the case of higher education in India (yet). See this, this, this, and this from earlier on in EFE.

But especially see this! College, as I’ve written in this post, is a bundle. It sells you the learning (Coursera), the signaling (LinkedIn) and the peer network (Starbucks):

If you want to go up against college as a business, you need to sell the same thing that college is selling. And the college sells you a bundle.
A business that seeks to do better than college must do better on all three counts, not just on learning. All of the online learning businesses – Coursera is just one very good example – aren’t able to fill all of the three vertices just yet.
And that’s why education hasn’t been truly shaken down by the internet just yet:
Because college today is more about signaling than it is about learning, and because when you pay money to a college, you are getting a bundle.

https://econforeverybody.com/2020/03/12/signaling-bundling-and-college/

And partially by regulatory capture (UGC approved degree, yay!) and partly by cultural conformity (Sharmaji ka beta went to IIT. Whaddya mean, you will learn from YouTube. Kuch bhi!) we still celebrate getting into a “top” college.

Since “top” colleges know this, there is no incentive for them to change. And since ed-tech firms in India also know this, they design excellent software that is designed simply to get students into these colleges3.

And so we in the education sector in India continue to wait for the revolution.


Phew! That’s enough for today. I’ll be back tomorrow with Part II of my reflections on this interview.

  1. about which more below[]
  2. Was it really by Confucius? I don’t think so.[]
  3. that is a sweeping generalization, yes. I’m more than happy to be corrected on this. Please tell me more about ed-tech firms that are about learning for its own sake, not about entrance examinations[]

Does Language Matter?

When you’re appearing for an interview, how important (or not) is your grasp of the English language?

  1. It is a factor, but it shouldn’t be the only one. I have worked with colleagues while in the analytics industry who couldn’t speak English very well – but their knowledge of their domains was far better than mine would ever be.
    Being insanely good at your core skill set is more important then being good in English. Being insanely good at English is not as important as being good at your core skill.
    But that being said, being 8/10 in both is best of all.
  2. Being good at communicating well is different from being good at English, and many people do not appreciate the difference. Here’s the non-negotiable bit: you should be able to explain yourself clearly and concisely. Given the world that we live in, it is best if you can do it in English. But no matter what language, clarity of thought and expression is table stakes.
  3. In an interview, my recommendation to candidates is that they state up front that they are not as conversant in English as they are in x/y/z language. And to state that they’re trying to get better at it, but it is an ongoing process. Think of it this way: if they are going to reject you for not being good at English, how does it matter whether you tell them or not? And if they aren’t going to reject you for your English, your candor and honesty is a plus for you.
  4. But to go back to pt. 1, being good at your core skill becomes even more important. For example, if you are applying for a job in the analytics industry, your knowledge of statistics and econometrics must be beyond reproach. Your knowledge of R or Excel or whatever must be beyond reproach.
  5. If you want to get better at English, I have three suggestions for you:
    1. Translate English reports (try the executive summary of a World Bank publication, if you want me to give you something to get started with) into whichever language you are comfortable with. You learn how to write professional English through this exercise (if only indirectly), and you add a line to your resume. There is no downside!
    2. Read this essay, not more than one paragraph on any given day. Read that paragraph thrice in one day, but never more than a paragraph a day. Don’t worry about how long it takes, but savor each sentence. Only try translating it once you’ve read the entire essay at least thrice. Your English will improve, but so also will your thinking and your writing, regardless of which language you end up using. Again, there is no downside.
    3. Force yourself to write ELI5 summaries of topics from your core skill. For example, explain what the Gaussian distribution is, and why it matters, to a 5 year old using simple English. Absolutely no downside!
  6. Bottomline: when the corporate world is telling you that it wants you to be good at English, it is really saying two things. First, it wants you to be a good communicator. Second, it wants you to be reasonably good at the English language. Trust me, the requirements are in that order. Trust me on this too: I know a lot of folks who are good at the second bit, but not so much at the former. (Hell, I’d put myself in this category).
  7. Bottom bottom line: practice becoming better at communicating clearly. That is much more important.

What I would ask if you claimed you knew Excel

Fridays have become gyaan sessions about employment, internships and jobs, and I suppose that’s a fine thing to keep going. Here are posts on the past two Fridays: On Interning, and “Cracking” Interviews.

Today is about what I would ask you if I was the interviewer, and I see on your CV that you claim to be proficient in MS-Excel. This post will hopefully help you figure out if you know Excel well enough – and by your responses, it’ll help me understand if I’m asking good questions!

Here are ten questions I would have asked about MS-Excel in an interview. I’ve tried to arrange them in increasing order of difficulty, so the first is the easiest one

  1. Is it possible to work with text data in Excel? Can you give me an example?
  2. What exactly is conditional formatting? Can you tell me about a time you used it in MS-Excel?
  3. How would you password protect a file in Excel?
  4. When are you better off using data filters instead of pivot tables? Whatever your answer, what is your reasoning?
  5. I’m not a fan of pie charts. Do you agree with my opinion, or not? Why?
  6. Give me your best guess about a keyboard shortcut in Excel that I’ll not be aware of.
  7. Index and Match, or Vlookup – which is better, and why?
  8. How would you go about creating dynamic charts in Excel? Or sentences that update automatically when new data is fed in to the sheet?
  9. What is your favorite Excel add-in? Why?
  10. Walk me through the coolest project you’ve ever done in Excel. (This last one if I’m convinced that you are a proper, legit Excel ninja)

How did you do? How did I do? What are questions that I should have asked but didn’t?

“Cracking” Interviews

I had written about maximizing soul the other day, and acing interviews is one of the best ways to think about minimizing time, effort and cost, rather than maximizing soul.

Because, in my opinion, cracking an interview is the same thing as saying that my work isn’t good enough to get me through the door. So what can I say, do or project in the interview that can tip me over.

The simplest way to crack an interview is to be good enough to be recruited.1


But, all that being said, and most probably ignored, here are some points to think about when you want to “crack” an interview.2

  1. As a fresher, it is perfectly fine to not have any prior work experience. Don’t sweat it if you have no work-ex to show on your CV. At you age, and your level of experience, that is a feature, not a bug.
  2. Given your lack of experience, and presumably prior work-ex, the interviewer is likely to focus on your CV. This is the streetlight effect: what is most easily searchable will be searched. Whatever is on your CV – the only piece of paper that the interviewer has to go on – is what they’ll focus on the most.
  3. That’s why all the agonizing over the CV – it becomes your calling card during the interview.
  4. Keep your CV as brief as possible, preferably less than a page. I still keep my CV to below a page.
  5. The economics-y way of thinking about this is very similar to how a presenter uses a PPT. The PPT should be a complement, not a substitute. Since you’re the one giving the interview, and not your CV, your CV should be nothing more than a bridge for the interviewer to reach you. It should be short on detail, but as long as possible on sparking curiosity.
  6. If your CV is able to spark said curiosity, it is up to you to turn that spark into a raging fire. To me, personally, your ability to speak English isn’t a deciding factor3. Your ability to communicate, to get your point across – in any mutually understandable language – that is very much a deciding factor.
  7. For example, if the interviewer says “Tell me more about this project/internship/whatever” – that’s a spark.
  8. Do not rush into a description of the project.
  9. Tell the interviewer about skills that you used to do the project well. Make sure these skills are relevant to the job that you are interviewing for. (Example: “I used my knowledge of VLOOKUPS in MS-Excel to do xyz”)
  10. Or tell the interviewer about skills that you acquired while doing this project. The second sentence in point 9 above applies here as well. (Example: “I learn how to use VLOOKUPS in MS-Excel to do xyz”)
  11. Or tell the interviewer about skills that you become aware you were lacking in while doing this project. Again, the second sentence applies. But also, in this particular case, you should also be able to tell the interviewer stuff that you have done to begin acquiring these skills. (Example: “I learnt that I had to know VLOOKUPS in MS-Excel inside out in order to do xyz. I have learnt how to do this by doing abc”)
  12. Now, all that being said, you should precede pts. 9, 10 and 11 by explaining in no more than three sentences the following:
    1. What was the point of the project? (That is, was the idea behind the project to increase revenues for the firm, decrease costs for the firm, or increase speed to market for the firm?)
    2. What was your specific role in the project? (That is, where did you fit in the big picture? This shows an awareness of both your own specific role, as well as the ability to understand how the whole project comes together, and why.)
    3. Quantify the success of the project. (Overall, we were able to increase x metric by y% over z years.)
    4. There is no way in hell you are going to be able to do this without writing it down. Please, spend the time and write down, in your own words, your answers to each of the three points above. Writing it down makes it clearer in your head. Trust me on this one.
  13. If you’ve done pt. 12 well, followed by pts. 9, 10, and 11, congratulations. You’ve turned that spark of curiosity into a raging fire. You’ve done this by demonstrating:
    1. A passion to learn stuff relevant to the task at hand
    2. An ability to think clearly and cogently about the work that you do
    3. A clear awareness of where you need to improve, and what you’re doing about it.
    4. The ability to communicate your work and its relevance clearly4
  14. Do this well enough, and you should be able to “crack” the interview.

  1. “What if there are many people who are good enough?” is the response I usually get when I say something like this. Contradictory, no? If there are many people who are good enough, then you aren’t good enough to be better than them. Work on that first![]
  2. This blog post is written assuming a fresher is sitting for an interview. Some points don’t change no matter what type of an interviewee you are, some do.[]
  3. Language should never be a barrier![]
  4. Again, the point is to not be Shakespeare, the master of the English language. The point is to be a very, very good communicator. Short, sharp sentences, and clarity of thinking – that’s what matters.[]