Noah Smith: Imagine the COVID-19 economy before Zoom and Amazon

Economists concerned about slowing productivity have spent the past decade hotly debating the value of free digital services such as Google’s web search and Amazon’s online store. But those online services have proven their worth during the pandemic. And COVID-19 may ultimately push our society to learn new ways of using digital technologies that accelerate productivity growth.

Over the past year I’ve been occasionally bombarded with tweets casting doubt on the value of software companies. The allegation that online services didn’t help with the pandemic came on top of a preexisting concern — prevalent among some economist, as well as critics of the technology industry — that these services add little to the real economy.

But let’s do a scary little thought experiment. Try to imagine what 2020 would have been like without Google, Amazon, Zoom, Slack or any of the other online services. It’s pretty terrifying.

First, because Amazon

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Pendo CEO Todd Olson Turns Pandemic into Possibilities, Reinvents Digital Communication in Businesses, Schools

“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger —but recognize the opportunity.”

This quote from President John F. Kennedy could well be applied to CEO Todd Olson and his company, Pendo.

The COVID-19 pandemic devastated many U.S. industries, but speeded the transition to the digital economy — and Pendo took full advantage of the opportunity.

Todd Olson
Pendo CEO Todd Olson

The Raleigh, North Carolina-based information technology services company provides step-by-step guides to help workers master new software packages. Pendo’s software is designed to boost employee proficiency through personalized training and automated support.

Demand for its services soared as schools shifted to online teaching and many companies permitted employees to work from home during the pandemic.

“More people are using digital products,” Co-founder and CEO Todd Olson told Newsweek. “Many

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