DiscoverMe 2014 conference in Los Angeles
Famous entrepreneur and investor, Marc Andreessen once said, “Software is eating the world.” That may be true, but there are still some sections of work where software needs the help of human hands.
TaskUs and CrowdFlower are outsourcing and crowdfunding companies that use technology and the power of a willing crowd to take on tasks. Their respective founders Bryce Maddock and Chris Van Pelt spoke about their companies’ relationships with all-consuming software, the crowd and the future of work on “Where did the jobs go? The future of work” panel at the first annual DiscoverMe conference Thursday.
San Fransico-based CrowdFlower, a network of five million contributors, works by deploying its masses to so-called “microtasks.” These small, routine tasks, like verifying company addresses for a CRM system or labeling data, if completed internally by a company’s staff would be too expensive, yet if completed with computer software would also be too expensive and error-prone. Computers, “they can’t do it. We’re not there yet,” said Van Pelt.
To quickly scale solutions to the crowd, “we train the crowd through truth answers,” by giving feedback on the performance of say, flagging inappropriate or appropriate content, said Van Pelt: “The CrowdFlower system is built to have tasks that are verifiable.”
And “really simple discreet tasks get higher results,” said Van Pelt. As the tasks become more nuanced or the workflow becomes multi-step then it becomes more challenging for the crowd to operate efficiencently.
At this threshold, the work becomes better suited for another sort of mass production: outsourcing. Santa Monica-based TaskUs, employs 800 workers out of the Philippines, who are at work 24/7, using the connectivity of the Internet to help their clients with work too costly to do themselves, but too complex to be efficiently crowdsourced.
The company, which started with just $25,000 and no outside institutional funding, has found success doing increasingly valuable work. “We started at the absolute bottom of the value chain,” said Maddock. Early on, the company transcribed voicemails and receipts for customers. But over the long run, Maddock sees moving up that value chain, including customer support like chat and email responses. Because TaskUs’s work is more human relational, nuanced and requires case-by-case judgment it is tough for a computer to mimic and not well suited for the crowd.
To get more of this customer support type business TaskUs is implementing trainings programs in the Phillipines. Maddock said this is a “win-win” because for the Filipino workers “it means higher salary and a better career path” and for TaskUs “we can charge a higher price.”
Van Pelt and Maddock admit crowdsourcing and outsourcing can be disruptive to the economy. The tasks that once made up the core of good-paying middle class jobs have been sent overseas and divided up amongst the crowd. And, these disruptions are only the beginning of what is coming. Eventually, much of the crowdsourcing and outsourcing work being done by CrowdFlower and TaskUs could be over taken by computers. “We are already beginning to see service jobs being operated by machines,” said Maddock.
Ultimately, the future of good-paying jobs lies in what TaskUs is doing: moving up the value chain. While TaskUs’s customer service ambitions may not seem like sophisticated work, the work is, in fact, a step up for the Filipino workers who do it. In the same way, for Americans to reach the next link in the value chain, and maintain first-rate prosperity, they also have to learn new skills. “Our society has to invest more in education,” said Maddock. Because the future will include less routine jobs and “more jobs for creators and people who have technical skills to implement technology.”