Google once predicted the flu, now it’s one of many tech giants the coronavirus has caught off guard (GOOG, FB, AMZN)

Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of Trending, the newsletter where we highlight BI Prime’s biggest tech stories.

If this is your first time here, I’m Alexei Oreskovic, Business Insider’s West Coast bureau chief and global tech editor. You can sign up here to get Trending in your inbox every week.

This week: Google’s technology once predicted the flu, now Google and other tech companies are scrambling to respond to a surprisingly powerful epidemic

Sundar Pichai

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Back when Google was still the “Don’t Be Evil” company, it earned incredible PR mileage from “Flu Trends” — a service that it boasted could crunch search queries and detect the seasonal flu faster than health officials.

It worked great, until it didn’t. Flu Trends failed spectacularly during the 2013 flu season and Google quietly killed the project. 

I can’t help but think back to that episode as I watch Google, and pretty much every company, grapple with the challenges and disruption of the coronavirus. 

Today’s hottest tech companies are built on the predictive power of Big Data and AI; the notion that greater processing brawn and smarter algorithms provide a competitive edge. So it’s striking that tech companies don’t appear to be any better prepared for the cascading challenges of the coronavirus epidemic than other businesses.

In the span of just a few weeks, Apple and Microsoft went from regaling their shareholders with rosy business forecasts to warning them of virus-related sales shortfalls. Travel plans and workplace policies for tech company employees are evolving by the day, leaving some employees flustered and rumors circulating.

And tech conferences, the splashy pageants of product launches, keynote talks, and hype, are following a similar trajectory. In quick succession, we’ve seen Facebook, Adobe, Okta, and Google all cancel their developers conferences. 

As correspondent Jeff Elder reports, these decisions are not easy ones to make for tech companies, or for the cities that host them. Conference visitors to San Francisco spend an average of $567 a day, according to one industry group’s tally.

For the tech companies who put on the events, the costs can’t be measured in just dollars and cents. Buzz, cachet, and loyalty with customers and developers are the most valuable currency for platform-based tech businesses. An amazing amount of planning goes into these events, but as the severity of the virus becomes more apparent, the tech companies that organize and attend the conferences are being forced to adapt to circumstances and respond on the fly.

There will almost certainly be more disruption and ripple effects in the months ahead, even if the epidemic doesn’t live up to the worst fears. 

We’ll never know if Google’s Flu Trends could have detected the coronavirus outbreak sooner if the product had still been operational. But the widespread scramble within the tech industry is a humbling reminder that for all the data, machine learning and flu predictors we make, there are still limits to what our tools can do for us. 

Read Jeff’s full story here:

From SXSW to San Francisco’s gaming confab, the coronavirus is forcing tech companies and cities to make a tough choice with huge stakes: Cancel or let the show go on?

The disciples of the Bezos Way 

Twilio Jeff Lawson

John Phillips/Getty Images

PayPal’s famous alumni have gone on to launch some of Silicon Valley’s most influential companies, from SpaceX to LinkedIn. Yahoo, for all its struggles, produced a generation of internet industry leaders. And Google veterans can be found in key roles throughout the tech world.

But Amazon is building a reputation for being a training grounds for executives who can plug into companies in Silicon Valley and beyond. Ashley Stewart’s look at Amazon’s alumni is an eye opener. From Square’s Alyssa Henry to Goldman Sachs’ Marco Argenti, the list of leaders who cut their teeth at Amazon is deep. Now they’re bringing the Bezos Way to corporations and startups across a wide spectrum of industries.

Read Ashley’s full story here:

Meet the 11 execs who left Amazon’s ‘CEO Factory’ and went on to become power players at major enterprise companies like Twilio, Tableau, and Intel

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Here are some of the latest tech highlights:

‘That was a f— up:’ Women’s coworking startup The Wing’s last-minute change of plans for a Brooklyn childcare service has left some working moms in the lurch

DoorDash’s food deliveries earned it a $13 billion valuation, but experts say its IPO plans amid market turmoil and a virus outbreak are a recipe for disaster

Amazon told sellers it will cut fees by up to 30% for fulfilling non-Amazon products as competition grows from Walmart, Shopify, and other startups — here’s the full pricing chart

Facebook has robots patrolling its data centers and has built a new team focused on automating the multibillion-dollar facilities

And more don’t miss goodies from across the BI newsroom:

A drunken late-night assault allegation has roiled the secretive world of Mark Zuckerberg’s private family office. Personal aides are speaking out about claims that household staff endured sexual harassment and racism from their colleagues.

More than 40 current and former Bloomberg LP employees reveal the company’s abusive ‘trading floor’ culture, where Mike Bloomberg and his colleagues allegedly called women ‘SFUs’ for ‘short fat and ugly,’ and women complained about a senior newsroom leader’s unwanted massages for years.

Goldman Sachs reveals the 10 best stocks to buy now for a market comeback from the coronavirus-driven plunge

That’s it for this week. As always, thanks for reading, and remember, if you like this newsletter, tell your friends and colleagues they can sign up here to receive it.

— Alexei

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