Thoughts from our CEO

Sparking a Talent Race-to-the-Top

800 533 Paul Breloff

This post originally appeared on PCDN, in their Future of Work in Social Change Career Series. See


The last time I applied to jobs (admittedly, a few years ago now), it was a miserable experience. Dozens of applications, dozens of hours wasted on job boards and cover letters, and what did I have to show for it? Nothing. No interviews, at most only a handful of form rejections. It was mostly a big, yawning black hole. And how did this experience make me feel? Like crap!

Imagine a similar dynamic playing out literally millions of times every day around the world. In India and Kenyaーthe two markets where we workーover a million people join the workforce each month, and the typical job posting gets upwards of 1,000 or more applicants. We’ve all heard the horror stories of millions of people applying for a few thousand jobsーand I’d wager my next paycheck that 90%+ of those applicants never got so much as a courtesy rejection. This is totally demoralizing!

As we’ve gotten to know these talent markets better, I’m increasingly convinced that this breakdown in trust and respect creates a vicious cycle of wasted time and bad outcomes for both the employer and the candidate. Instead of a “race to the top,” it’s a race to the bottom. In this race, candidates lose faith in the fairness and transparency of the job market, driving them to apply to jobs blindly and without any research into the role or company (i.e., “spray and pray”), while companies are so flooded by resumes that they don’t have time to carefully weigh the merits of each application or respond with a status update or rejection.

Exacerbating the problem, job boards have made it easy to apply with one-touch applications, leading many jobseekers to apply to every single open job every day for weeks. And so called data-driven approaches like automated CV keyword searches only incentivize jobseekers to add meaningless buzzwords by the handful, hoping the job board and application tracking system filters will catch them and move them higher in the pile.

Let’s be clear: I don’t think anyone is winning in this current state of affairs. Companies are drowning in resumes and resorting to old-school, bias-heavy approaches like screening only for top academic institutions or known companies to cut through the noise. And jobseekers are not rewarded for deeply researching a role or company and taking their time assembling strong applications that show what they can do and why they’d be great.

So, if much of the market is racing to the bottom…what might companies and employers do to spark a talent race to the top?

  • Make it worth the effort to try: Right now, there’s not much rewarding candidates for taking the time to learn about a company, work hard on an application, and follow up professionally. There are various ways we could incentivize good behavior and deliver more value to jobseekers. We can communicate expectations more clearly on both sides, and be clear about what the overall process will look like. Make it easy to learn more about the company, with compelling job descriptions and links to further information. Communicate excitement about the role and the impact (social or otherwise) you can have on the job. Gamify the process and use icons that visually reinforce best practice (🌟🎖🏆🏅💚). Offer tips and tools on how best to interview, what skills or competencies will matter most in the role and which traits the hiring manager will be looking for.
  • Be human: The job search often feels inhuman, and it has been made even worse in some ways by the digitization of many steps of the search and application process. But an increasingly digital process doesn’t have to be an increasingly cold and inhumane one! Use technology, but make it fun. Invest in well-designed UI/UX. Share personal anecdotes and success stories of current employees and past applicants. Use engaging graphics and emojis (🏄😇💪💥). Don’t be afraid to send an email, make a phone call. Try not to unnecessarily prolong the process (e.g., don’t wait over a week to review an application; don’t stretch processes over 2+ months and 10+ interviews). Use the candidate’s first name every chance you can. In the interview process, show empathy and gratitude for the candidate’s effort and interest in your company. When closing the candidate out, avoid “corporate speak” and give it to them straight, and respect the effort they put in.
  • Deliver value at every turn: Let’s be honest: applying for jobs is grueling and many candidates face 99 rejections for even 1 promising interview. How can we make sure that every candidate, even those we ultimately pass on, get value from the process? To the extent practical, we can provide feedback on why people didn’t get the job. Provide advice about how to make a better application next time and resources about the employer’s industry or the function the person applied to (e.g., a generic white paper on how to prepare for a career as a finance manager or UX designer). Suggest other positions within the company that could be a good fit, and email as similar positions come up in the future. Invite applicants to informational events in the future or networking events to meet other young professionals with similar interests.
  • Be transparent: Black holes suck. It’s bad enough to be rejected from a job you want; it’s even worse when you don’t hear anything at all, one way or the other. Be clear up front what the role requires and the criteria that will be used in deciding who to interview and hire. Acknowledge that you’ve received an application and that you’re reviewing it. If it’s been awhile and you still haven’t made a hire, let candidates know that the hiring process is still underway, and acknowledge the understandable eagerness they may feel for a resolution. And above all else, let people know if you decide not to proceed with them (and bonus points for actual feedback!).
  • Make the process fair: Recruiting processes are riddled with bias at every turn. Resume screening is often based more on recognizable school or company brand names more so than any real markers of ability to do the job. Interviewing is notoriously biased, with most decisions made in the split-second upon meeting and confirmed with conversational trajectories subconsciously directed to confirm initial impressions rather than objectively assess fit. To make the process more fair, invest in tech-enabled screening that vets candidates on objective factors that have been determined in advance. Use skill and other competency assessments to gauge what a candidate can do, rather than just what they say they’ve done. Collect the same information and data-points on each candidate so you can compare apples to apples. Interview in a structured format, with clear notions of what you’re looking for, and what makes for a good and bad answer. Make every effort to make sure the playing field is level, making sure the best and most deserving really do rise to the top.

At Shortlist, we’re trying to build a better way to hire, one that will use a combination of tech and human touch to scale these “better behaviors” across all our clients’ hiring processes. We create media-rich, colorful, and engaging job descriptions. Our digital application process is full of humor, progress updates, “what-to-expects,” color, and graphics. We automate application updates, letting people know they’re still in the running if the process drags and closing out all applicants. We offer dedicated applicant care, a human being candidates can call or email for help. We let employers know when candidates are waiting, offer helpful reminders about how to keep the process moving, and help with structured interviews after the first screen is done. And in the future, we hope to offer many more links and resources to help jobseekers on their journey even if they’re not selected for the job for which they applied.

Our hope is that if we can help employers engage in better behaviors, jobseekers will start to follow suit: we hope candidates in the future research jobs in advance, only apply for the jobs they really want, invest in the process, show up to interviews, negotiate in good faith, and show up on the first day of work (none of which can be taken for granted!). Let’s rev up these virtuous cycles and start a race to the top, so everyone can win.


Unlocking the Next Generation of African Talent

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My playlist has been dominated by Arcade Fire lately, for no reason in particular. I’m loving their newest album “Everything Now,” a collection of pieces suggesting that humanity is at an all-you-can-eat buffet and we’ve blown right past satiety to stomach rupture.

Amidst the angst over civilization’s internal combustion, there’s at least one line from the song “Creature Comfort” that I find myself turning over in my mind in the context of our current work at Shortlist:

“Born in a diamond mine / It’s all around you but you can’t see it / Born in a diamond mine / It’s all around you but you can’t touch it”

In Africa, there is a huge untapped talent mine hiding in plain sight (and that is absolutely not a reference to the troubling history of extractive industries in Africa). On the continent, we’re on the cusp of likely the greatest talent explosion in the history of humankind.

By 2030, the working age population across Africa is set to grow from 370 million to over 600 million, expanding the workforce by more than the rest of the world combined over that time period. Yes, combined.

For the continent to fully benefit from this incredible potential opportunity, it will require (1) a massive increase in the availability of good jobs, (2) an education and skilling infrastructure primed to prepare individuals for those jobs, and (3) a better way of matching talent and opportunity.

There is a gaping hole between the number of people seeking work, and the number of jobs actually available. And there’s a growing mismatch between the skills young people have today and the skills that employers are demanding. This is increasingly being identified by business leaders, politicians, policy wonks and philanthropists as *the* issue to solve in Africa.

At Shortlist, I’m not sure we can do much about creating great new jobs at scale; that’s probably the domain of big business, government and policymakers. It’s a huge multi-headed problem with no easy answer, for sure. But I do believe we can use new approaches to education, skills development, and opportunity-matching to prepare the kind of ready-to-rock talent pools that can, over time, attract the kind of large scale job creation we need. In other words, maybe we can create pockets of reversed chicken-vs-egg causality, where creating talent pools of skilled and ready young professionals can attract more companies, bigger investment, and better jobs.

So what’s going to be key to unlocking this talent and laying bare the incredible talent bounty of the continent?

Improve learning

Gone are the days where we could rely on high school and university to prepare people for the modern workplace. As Ryan Craig writes in his new book, the future of higher education lies in faster, better, and/or cheaper alternatives to higher education. These alternatives need to be affordable; geared towards skills of the future (like tech and data); geared toward competencies and practice rather than theoretical subject matter. Technical programs like those offered by Moringa School or courses on soft skills (like communication, problem-solving and teamwork) like those now offered by Shortlist show new ways that practical learning can be fostered outside of traditional, long-term and expensive higher ed options.

Promote discovery

Part of the problem is that young professionals often don’t know yet what they’re passionate about, don’t yet know what they’re good at (or could be good at), and don’t know what the market wants/expects. Students are often slotted into courses of study very early and in a manner dictated more so by society and family (whose mom hasn’t wanted them to be a doctor at some point??) than informed personal decision-making. (And to be clear, this certainly isn’t only an issue in Africa…)

We can use tech and digital distribution to expose young people to the range of professional options out there and provide tools for self-discovery and opportunity discovery — and in so doing, also get to know job-seekers better. Think: the right podcasts/videos/posts targeted to the right people at the right time, with a feedback loop to gather data points on interests, engagement, motivation, and learning velocity. We can then start to engage and curate pools of talent based on genuine interest and ability rather than meaningless demographics, and we can tailor content and training opportunities to the particular passions and abilities of specific jobseekers.

Help companies see better

Back to the original conceit: “It’s all around you but you can’t see it.” Part of this issue is that talent is there, we just lack the tools to see it. If your criteria for “work-readiness” revolves around a prestigious tertiary degree, time served at a Big 3 consultancy or Big 4 accounting firm, and lots of acronyms — well, you may not find enough professionals to build your company. If, however, you are open to professionals who possess the skills and/or raw ability to succeed, the talent is often there, but the tools of finding and seeing it are lacking.

Our approach at Shortlist collects and analyzes data points on demonstrations of competency, skill and motivation, so that we can X-ray vision the CV and see who has the stuff of success regardless of credential. Of course this approach works better for some roles than others, but broadly we believe that employers in or coming to Sub-Saharan Africa will need to think differently about assessing talent, relying on underlying competencies and skills and not fancy gold stars, if they are going to find the folks they need to grow.

Needless to say, this will NOT be easy. It will take the efforts and energy of a diverse set of stakeholders, sometimes working together and sometimes in parallel, to realize this promise. Most importantly, it will be driven by and depend on the energy of this emerging workforce to go out and grab these opportunities and create even more opportunities themselves.

All things considered, though, we’re choosing to stay optimistic about the road ahead, despite the significant challenges — and no matter what Arcade Fire thinks.


Our team, out for a stroll in Lonavala, in wigs.

Building Great Teams – Focus on the Meta-Culture

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At Shortlist, we’re driven by a passion to bring the best tools and tech on Earth to help companies in Africa and India succeed at building great teams. We’re active readers of blogs and books on hiring, culture, talent development, and building effective teams. So it’s particularly exciting when a book can break through the noise and provide a compelling answer to a simple, huge question like: why are some teams great, and others aren’t?

Enter The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle. I don’t know Daniel Coyle (though I wish I did), and he’s not paying us to write this (though I wish he would). I just personally found this to be a great book and I wish every manager and leader would read it.

In the book, Coyle goes through the steps leaders can follow to create environments that enable building great teams  — as well as highlighting some of the common ways leaders and their teams muck things up. His steps are: One, Build Safety; two, Share Vulnerability; three, Establish Purpose. Okay, granted, standing by themselves, they don’t mean much. If you want to learn more, just read the book.

This book served as a bit of a touchstone at a recent Shortlist team offsite. Last week, our leadership team retreated to Lonavala (two hours outside Mumbai) for a few days of strategizing, aligning, and bonding. We cooked together, we exercised together, we had looong sessions on topics related to our values, new product lines, and market prioritization. Wigs may have been involved.

We kicked off the retreat with a powerful book club over dinner (guacamole made a rare Maharashtra appearance) where we discussed The Culture Code, what it means for our work and our team, and how we can help instill some of the principles and ideas into our partners as well.

Guacamole. Yum.

This was not your typical “culture” book. We are living in a moment, at least the moment as defined by a certain kind of Silicon Valley blogger, in which company culture is held up as the answer to all woes. Uber is falling apart? It’s their bad culture. Zappos reigns supreme for their ethos of customer happiness? It’s their awesome culture. Amazon has employees crying under desks? Salesforce has risen to the top of Fortune’s list of best places to work? Culture! Culture!

A discussion of culture often starts with values, and the observable behaviors that express those values. That’s certainly where we started, when we set up to define our core values and culture at Shortlist. Read how we did that here (warning: more wigs). This has been so useful for us, and every company should do this! And surely, too few do.

But what Daniel Coyle outlines is a whole dimension of culture and “team” that sits above, below, and around a defined set of core values. A dimension of building great teams that extends these values, or perhaps better put, let’s whatever values you’ve set come to life. We might call this dimension “meta-culture”: the stew of behaviors, practices, modes of communicating, relationships and more in which culture lives and teams find their potential, or don’t. (We can’t call it Uber-culture, because that’s probably trademarked and isn’t, um, what we’re aspiring to.)

Some of the elements of this meta-culture include practices of healthy communication (profuse amounts of eye contact, short bursts of communication rather than speeches, laughter, equally shared speaking time); building social connections through belonging cues signaling we are safe, we share a future; creating opportunities to solve hard problems together and connect activities to a higher purpose; physical proximity in a workspace; shared language and stories around simple priorities; and so much more.

For me personally, this unlocked a dimension of leadership that I associate more actively with athletics than industry. It’s the practices of a close-knit sports team more than a group of managers. And it makes me wonder if everything I ever needed to know about leadership, I might have learned through high school basketball.

Being a coach or team captain in basketball was rarely about articulating a brilliant 90-day strategy or white-boarding core values. Rather, effective coaching involved facilitating a constellation of interactions or (as Daniel Coyle might say) “micro-events” that define a sense of shared purpose and safety to go out and work together and make great things happen.

I remember the way an early basketball coach (Coach Russell, who I’m sure is an avid reader of this blog) would barrage us with sprints and slide drills as a way to hammer home the priority of team and the importance of effort over outcome. One eruption occurred because of a failure of the team to slide over to support on “help side defense,” leading to painful dozens of wall touches. Another time, we were up by 20 points on a team at halftime, and feeling good about ourselves. Coach Russell came in spitting fire and fury, maybe even threw a clipboard (memory is a funny thing), because he could tell we were loafing and stopped playing hard. Even though we were up 20!

Coach Russell was most proud of us in narrow defeats in which we left everything on the floor and played our best, even though the outcome didn’t go our way. Coach Russell would sometimes position himself as our shared enemy, when we needed a shared enemy, and other times step up as a close friend, looking us in the eyes and letting us know that things would be okay. This basketball team, in the ninth grade, was one of the highest functioning, greatest examples of whole-greater-than-sum-of-parts that I’ve been a part of.

This exposed a dimension of leadership that’s been dormant within my own understanding of “Being A Leader.” It’s the dimension that’s less about never-say-die optimism, bold vision statements and well-articulated values (all important in their own right), and more about the way you make people feel, the way you listen and care, the way you create togetherness and belonging. I wonder if modern theory has over-indexed the importance of one set of skills and under-appreciated the value of other dimensions.

For Shortlist, we walked away from book club and the retreat with a rejuvenated sense of team togetherness, shared purpose, and hopefully a deeper comfort letting down our hair around each other (even if the hair’s synthetic and purchased on Amazon). We went another step deeper defining the observable behaviors related to our core values, but we also spent time brainstorming how to barrage our team with “belonging cues,” how to more actively create “vulnerability loops,” how to capitalize on “threshold moments” like when new teammates join our team. And we left with a desire to share some of these lessons on leadership and building great teams with our colleagues and partners, hoping these ideas can helpfully supplement everything else the world thinks it knows about company culture.

More wigs. Why not.

To Be or Not To Be (a Social Enterprise)

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I really enjoyed a recent piece by Daniel Pianko, co-founder and Managing Director at education-focused venture fund University Ventures, one of our investors. In it, he discusses the tricky no-win decision faced by would-be impact investors:

Make the impact argument to potential limited partners (the groups that invest in venture and private equity funds), and risk being pigeon-holed into a tiny fraction of capital reserved for impact investments. Make the case on returns only, and lose out on the small pool of limited partners eager to anchor impact funds.

Instead, Daniel hopes we all can move past the bifurcated lexicon of social vs. commercial enterprise. (And he’s certainly not the only one; see here for another example…) After all, Daniel believes that the companies out there solving the world’s biggest challenges should end up creating above-market returns for funds, regardless of whether they’re called “impact investments” or not. In UV’s case, this means investing to accelerate positive trends in education and employment pathways, and measuring success in terms of metrics like learning and career outcomes.

I think this is right on. This kind of thesis-led investing is the right way to build a fund — and the right way to build a business.

I couldn’t help but recognize a choice similar to Daniel’s when a company like ours decides whether to identify as a “social enterprise” or not. I feel a certain tension, knowing that for many people the term social enterprise has become code for loss making and non-commercial. That sucks!

When I first discovered the concept of social enterprise in law school, working on a startup bank that aspired to double-bottom line returns, I was inspired. At the time, the existence of a band of people and a coterie of companies aspiring to do well while doing good was thrilling and stoked career aspirations to channel the power of business to solve important global problems.

At Shortlist, I feel like we’re doing just that.

We are guided by our mission to unlock professional potential, to create a level playing field where everyone can be considered for opportunities on the basis of merit, not pedigree, and to help companies build the best teams they can. This feels important and worthwhile, and if we succeed with this we think we will also succeed financially in a big way.

So I hate it when labels like “social enterprise” get reduced to an impact vs. commercial dichotomy. Instead, for me, the label social enterprise should signify a values commitment and a thesis on how to build a successful, money-making business.

We want to wear on our sleeve our commitment to mission, not over or instead of profit, but as a multiplying force of our profit.

Why a multiplying force?

  • Because we believe that our commitment to solve a big problem is what attracts and motivates the best and brightest — and we’re awed by the talented team we’ve assembled.
  • Because we believe that pursuing a positive vision of what’s possible is the best way to secure a broad base of support that goes beyond pure capitalists to include philanthropists, foundations, and governments.
  • Because we believe that many of the biggest problems facing humanity are also the hardest and impact the most humans, suggesting that the rewards can be massive for the folks that figure them out.
  • And because we believe that aiming for impact is the most personally motivating, and after all, Achievement = Talent x Motivation.

So at the end of the day, I believe that whether we call Shortlist a social enterprise will always matter less than our shared vision of the better world we’d like to help create.

The Future of Work: Best of Times and/or Worst of Times?

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Our robot friends can now pluck petals.

I just capped off a frenetic three-week visit to the US, making stops in 7 different cities (if you can count my 20,000-person hometown of Lockport NY as a city — perhaps a stretch, though we do have the amazing Erie Canal Locks).

My trip was book-ended by two unique experiences. On the front end, I participated in a Young Leaders Conference put on by the Council for the United States & Italy, bringing together 51 professionals from 17 countries in Boston to discuss “The Changing Nature of Work and Its Implications for Individuals, Businesses and Society.” And on the back end, I sat on a panel at SOCAP in San Francisco, discussing “The Future of Work — and What’s Working Already.” Similar topics, but very different outlooks.

The first event in Boston focused on a series of thought-provoking questions about the way work is changing. We discussed the forces that are causing these changes, from gig-enabling marketplaces to offshoring to robotic and AI-driven automation to wealth concentration and the emergence of a new monopolistic order. We considered the havoc this is wreaking, at the level of income disparities, industrial re-ordering, loss of identity and self-esteem. And we queried: What on earth might we do about it?

The discussions were terrific, textured, and open — and a lot of fun. (Spoiler: Not sure we solved it.) However, at the end of the day, they more often than not tracked the pessimistic arc of most journalistic news stories and commentary: The world is changing, it’s creating more losers than winners, we should raise our fists and resist. And, I must admit, I often feel this way.

SOCAP presented another point of view: Amidst the doom and gloom, there’s hope and excitement. Amidst robots and machine intelligence, we are opening up new ways of democratizing opportunity and giving real people a chance to seize control of their destinies. Probably not surprising for SOCAP, which is held at Fort Mason, perched on the scenic northern tip of SF. It’s one of the only conferences where most meetings are had while staring out at the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, where you can always taste the ocean, and where you sometimes leave with a tan. Who wouldn’t bend towards world-beating optimism in those environs, and with the do-gooding, feel-gooding energy of over 3,000 global participants?

But now, back in India, free from the ideological pull of both experiences, I find myself drawn to and mulling over the lesser told story of the really cool stuff happening around the future of work: The future of how we learn new skills, pursue fulfilling careers without crushing student debt, discover and pursue awesome career pathways. Many of these sub-currents seem driven by entrepreneurs and enabled by modern technological possibility. Among the examples and trends that give me hope:

Viable, accessible alternatives to traditional, expensive four-year undergraduate degrees. There’s nothing wrong with a traditional liberal arts program (says the philosophy/psychology major…) but for many it’s a debt-ridden path to professional no-man’s land. One of my fellow SOCAP panelists (and Shortlist investor) Ryan Craig of University Ventures published a book called “College Disrupted,” which argues that online degrees and other higher ed alternatives will unbundle traditional degrees to offer a better deal for the majority of students in terms of graduation, employment, and wages. And he’s publishing another book next year on faster, cheaper, and better alternatives to college, identifying hundreds of new options.

An example is a program like MissionU, whose founder Adam Braun also joined our SOCAP panel. MissionU is a one-year program which combines training in-demand skills like data analytics and business intelligence with soft-skills like collaboration and critical thinking, financed with an income-share agreement requiring $0 upfront (repayment is taken as a % of income post-graduation).

An explosion of short-course options to upskill in areas like programming, data science, digital marketing, and more, offered by “boot camps” like General Assembly and Galvanize, online course providers like Udemy and Udacity, MOOC-aggregators like Coursera, and blended models like Upgrad. Almost anyone can catch up to the cutting edge with enough basic smarts, motivation, and tuition money (which can be, admittedly, steep).

New ways of combining upskilling and talent connection into one business model, especially in emerging markets. Companies like Andela (in Africa) and Revature (in US/India) combine talent screening and tech upskilling to find and train teams of engineers. (Ashwin Bharath, COO/Co-Founder of Revature, rounded out our panel at SOCAP.) These engineers get contracted out to global companies, like GitHub and Viacom, while staying on the books of Andela/Revature. Companies get lower cost talent, and young professionals get the opportunity to learn new skills and advance their careers on someone else’s dime.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a blog by me if I didn’t plug Shortlist, and how excited we are about facilitating a shift from pedigree-based to competency-based hiring. We see so many ways to use tech and data to make it easier for employers to see past the CV and instead assess true potential, ability, and fit, promoting a level economic playing field and helping companies and employees alike find a better match. In fact, we see this shift towards competency-based methods as integral to the success of many of the above ideas. Employers will need to reorient themselves from traditional proxies like 4-year degrees and name brand corporate experience to other signals of competency if programs like those at MissionU, General Assembly, and UpGrad are to reach their full potential.

Last but not least, I love to see a LOT more focus on building a career of meaning and impact, particularly among millennials. Perhaps I’m over-sampling the do-gooder set (too much time at SOCAP; Medium/Facebook/Google AI bots great at predicting my click propensity) but it really does seem like mission and meaning are more important to young professionals than ever. Getting rich quick and at all costs is no longer cool; making the world a better place is (though if you can do that while getting rich, that may be cooler still, according to my read of the zeitgeist). I see new articles and blogs every day focused on meaning at work, ikagai, and self-actualization. Companies like Imperative are trying to help companies lead with purpose.

Our data head Anshul’s (nonprofit) side hustle.

Even on my team at Shortlist, I love to see the extracurricular energy of my colleagues: Our data science head Anshul moonlights as the co-founder of GreatToAwesome, helping young Indian professionals build “careers of passion and impact”; and one of our first employees Ben launched a podcast Journey Down Discovery Lane, featuring guests with ideas for “becoming your best self.”

So, amidst the pessimism, there’s light! There’s cause for optimism! Maybe we can turn this thing around, and the future of work will be better than ever!

Even so: robots scare me…