Proust Goes Tech With Laura Watkins, eBay’s Leader Of Strategic Partnerships

As the leader of Strategic Partnerships at eBay, Laura develops the company’s relationships with innovative startups. She is a leader with a passion for increasing diversity in the industry, serving on the board of eBay’s Women in Technology group and participating on the company’s Global Impact Team.

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Last week, Laura opened up to Crunchbase News about her love of slow burning tweets, dislike of seafood, and frustrations with technology in its transitional phase.

What would you otherwise be doing right now?

I would probably still be teaching. I taught fifth and sixth grade science at a hippy environmental science charter school in the Bay Area for eight years before I learned to code.

I used to rap about photosynthesis, and I played in a guitar funk trio in the cafeteria. On rainy days, we’d play songs about decomposition and the water cycle. We did a cover of Carlos Santana’s song “Evil Ways” called “Evil Waste” which was about food waste. It was pretty good.

Your main fault?

As it pertains to technology, I think in a field that is built on overachieving and being a ten at everything is my biggest fault, or just most glaring difference is that I have a very recurring, almost meta-level of apathy on a lot of issues. I have a really hard time getting anxious or stressed about work or technology because I so frequently think tech culture—this feature, this roadmap item, this deck that I think my life depends on—is all ephemeral. None of it matters. It could all disappear tomorrow and we would be fine. Which is great for me, but I think abnormal for tech in general. It means that I’m never the super pumped, overly passionate rockstar who lives and dies for tech, codes at home, codes at work, and always has the side hustle. I am not that person, and very overtly so.

The quality you most desire in a tweet?

Oh totally the slow burn. A joke, or information, or a reference where it takes you a minute or two to let it sink in and gets better with every read. Okay, there’s a gif of Kim Kardashian doing the grinch-like expression where you see her going from just a dead-eyed stare into a very trolly, wry grin. So any tweet that makes me do that gif has my heart forever. And I think about those throughout the rest of the day.

Your idea of misery?

Having to eat sea meats. I hate seafood. I don’t eat any of it.

But outside of that, I think it would be having to live in an over technologically engineered dystopia. I think a lot of us, especially myself, are starting to get a taste of that now. I say that as someone who has selectively chosen to live a life with a Google Home, Alexa, and Siri. I live in a deranged court of interspecies dysfunction between the humans in my house and the three house robots who control all of my devices, and alarms, and life. And none of them even work that well.

The other night I slept with all of the lights on because Alexa was having connectivity issues and just kept repeating “Sorry, I can’t find the light right now.” In a more existential sense, [it] was kind of like a robot cry for help. So I see it as a preview of the eventual state we’ll all be living in where our technology becomes a full time thing that we manage. We’ll have our kids and our relationships, and our coworkers and our diets and our exercise, but, it’s like, “also take care of all of the devices.” That is my nightmare.

I think there’s definitely a transition phase of smart technology. It’s not seamless yet. Maybe the Apple HomePod will save us. No, it won’t. That thing is awful.

What do you appreciate the most in your friends?

People you can be absolutely unguarded with, and talk about fault and farts, you know? Where you tell the truth about your life and your relationship, and the way you feel, and you don’t check yourself or worry if it’s okay to say those things. I think that’s great to have.

I personally have a fantastic network of “friends” with a lowercase “f.” But when it comes to the intimacy of “Friendship,” with a capital “F,” the ability to be completely unguarded is the most valuable.

Your chief characteristic?

Probably that I’m unceasingly reasonable to the point where it can be difficult. You know when you get in arguments and some people get really heated? They get angry, or they get frustrated, or they get passionate. I am not that person. So I think it makes it difficult to argue with me, to get really excited with me, to be really anxious with me, or to be really depressed with me because I just don’t.

If I was in a plane that was crashing, I would think to myself, “Oh that’s how the air things deploy. I’ve always wondered,” and “do people actually put the mask on themselves first before their children, as directed?” Those are the observations I would be making. I just don’t think that I would panic. Like what is the point of panicking in that juncture. You’re all going to die in a plane crash. It’s hard for me to panic because I don’t see a lot of value in panicking. I think i’m so even-keeled that it can be overwhelming at times.

What skill do you wish you possessed?

I wish I was the person who could super seamlessly socially interact with everybody and really enjoy it all the time. That could be super valuable in a networking and “friend circle” way. We all know those people whose greatest joy is just talking to everyone else. I definitely have a threshold.  It’s probably right in the middle to the lower-end of middle where I feel that I’m at my social quota. This is, at times, where it probably would serve me socially or professionally to be able to go or want to go a little further.

I also wish I was a morning person who could wake up at 5 AM, eat a yogurt cup, and run a 5k, but I am not that person!

Your most impactful book?

I have strong feelings about this. I know everyone says a tech or business book or something Mark Cuban wrote. I’ve read all of those, but for me what is most valuable (and something that I try to read every month on my Kindle) is books of prose or poetry. My two favorite authors, hands down, are Anne Carson and C.D. Wright. Anne Carson is a MacArthur Genius Grant winner and works in the most fluid, beautiful, and bizarre way with language. She’s a professor of greek antiquities, and so she retells a lot of classic stories in a very new lens, but without compromising any of the original.

I think it’s important, especially in the world of business or technology where things can be very linear, to be able to have a mastery of language or to be able to express yourself; and to make an effort to immerse yourself in non linear prose, or very linguistic experiences.

I used to be an engineer, and when I was programming full time, I had a really hard time writing argument emails with my boyfriend at the time because I was just not very associated with that skill anymore. That really creeped me out. I knew I never wanted to lose that again. My favorite Anne Carson quote is “sometimes too much is lost between the tongue and the taste,” and it’s that kind of lyrical and direct punch I never want to lose touch with in a sea of business and engineering speak I do daily.

So anything Ann Carson has ever written, Autobiography of Red is the greatest. Float is her new book, and it’s outstanding.

What defines success?

I think for me it’s really simple. Regardless of what I’m doing that day, it’s going home at the end of the day and thinking “I did good.” That could mean that I accomplished a million errands, or finally solved a problem, or was just really busy and had back-to-back, productive meetings all day.

When is confidence lost?

First is when you can see that someone doesn’t have confidence in what they’re saying, themselves, because they know it’s bullshit, or they’re very unsure, or it’s someone else’s words in their delivery. The second is when it’s a front and someone is completely bullshitting you.

Which buzzword is exhausted?

*sigh* Blockchain.

What impact do you want to leave behind?

I’m really ambivalent about this. I think this comes back to my earlier statement about being meta-ambivalent about a lot of things.

We all die, and that’s okay. You don’t have to leave behind some magical myth about yourself and everything you’ve created. I just don’t think that’s real. I think if you live your life and every day and say “I did good today. I’m happy. This was good. I had fun,” that’s enough. I really never worry about what people will think about me when I’m dead. Mostly because I will be dead. So, you know, it’s not really a two way conversation.

What’s the biggest problem tech is failing to solve?

I don’t think that’s an issue of depth, but much more one of breadth. I think the right solutions are out there, or at least conversations around the right solutions. I think early stages of the technologies are there for almost all of the technical and societal and geopolitical challenges that we have.

I think it’s totally a resource allocation problem. All of the money is thrown into the private sector. For very basic things like food sourcing and energy consumption. From a consumer, day-to-day perspective, things like being able to report a pot hole in the road, or get your drivers license renewed or your passport done, the systems are technically antiquated and oftentimes insecure and very inaccessible. Especially in a growing nation that is no longer as white as it used to be and that is much more multilingual and multigenerational. We have to have platforms and technological tools that are usable by a very diverse nation. We don’t put enough effort into that.

I think that what the U.S. Digital Service Department was doing under Obama was absolutely amazing. That program should be expanded by ten. Every amount of infrastructure and internal and civic tooling that we touch should be new and rethought. It should be meant for the population that we have today and meant to serve us for the next fifty years instead of the fifty that have already happened.

Editorial Note: Answers edited for brevity and clarity.

Illustration: Li-Anne Dias

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