Thursday, May 8, 2008

Getting in on the future.

Recently I was reading the March 8, 2008 issue of the New Yorker. In one of that magazine's lovely cartoons was a group of corporate types sitting around a table. The boss was making a point, forcefully putting his hand down on the table. The caption read, “I want to get us in on the ground floor of the next bandwagon!”

I got to thinking about this in light of what I am often asked by other people: What is the Next Big Thing™ that they should be ready to take on if they want to get ahead? This is a question that I always thought somewhat strange. It seems to me that trying to figure out what everyone else is going to do is much harder and ultimately less useful than figuring out what problems could be solved or what opportunities might be exploited. Or, as Alan Kay said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

So here's a question: What does it mean to invent the future? How different is that from creating technology?

It seems to me that inventing the future will almost inherently include the creation of technology or making novel application of existing technologies, but that won't be enough all by itself. To invent the future, technology must be understood in a context: ultimately, how people benefit from the technology. Here is a warning for engineers enamored of their own brilliance who think themselves above the forces of markets, a need to deal with customers, or to think about how to create a successful business. The most brilliant technology must be put to some use, or it is, by definition, useless.

Early in my career, I was keenly aware of the need for relevance. As we entered the workforce, many of my peers were creating résumés with an “Objective” section that would say something like, “Acquire a position where I can apply the skills I have learned in school and continue my career.” Boring! (I still see that sort of nonsense on the résumés that people throw my way. Enough already!) Of course, the real problem isn't that it's boring as much as it is simply irrelevant—why does that objective mean anything to a hiring manager? Against the advice of people who told me the Right Way to get a job, I proclaimed the audacious “Objective” that was more to do with ensuring that technology was remained a servant of humanity.

This wasn't just a trite remark that was intended to catch the attention of hiring managers; it really was my career objective as I understood it at the time. In the roughly fifteen years that have transpired since that time the objective has proved a worthwhile guide. It's vague enough that I haven't painted myself into a corner but it's also specific enough that it gives me a way to determine if I want to exploit an opportunity before me: will the effort help to make technology a good servant of our species? If not, it's something that I can afford to let go. In any case, I need to understand the context I'm working in: when will the technology be ready for the marketplace? What will the marketplace look like then?

These questions can be hard and scare people off of the idea of getting their products ever created. At some level, considering such questions just gets us to the point where we're trying to guess what everyone else is going to do. I think we're far better off defining the space that we're going to work in—the context that we use—and then to proceed with the development of products and services that provide utility to real people.

So what do you do to ensure that you'll be able to get in on the ground floor of the future?



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