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Here's to the technology builders: A hat tip

For all of the product builders in the technology world, here is a hat tip, a challenge, and a couple stories for inspiration.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/medlar

I spend a lot time criticizing the latest products in tech. I'm a technology critic. That's my job, and, it's absolutely necessary in order to help buyers make smart decisions about technology and to push the tech companies to do their best work and to act in good faith towards their customers.

But, I'm going to hit the pause button on my usual commentary on tech products and trends in order to show a little gratitude.

I'd like to tip my hat to all of the engineers, developers, designers, project managers, entrepreneurs, and other professionals who are out there pouring their hearts into the process of building the next technology products. You are the vanguard. You are the leaders.

I'm very aware of how frustrating and disappointing it is to sweat and toil on a new product and then have some journalist like me hold it up and tell everyone what's wrong with it and recommend that people buy something else.

When I'm hard on tech companies and their products it's because I fiercely believe that they are doing some of the most important work on the planet in the 21st century.

No industry is doing more than the technology industry to connect people across the globe and help them see themselves as one community.

No industry is doing more than tech to provide humanity with tools that can streamline their work and make them more productive so that they can solve new problems.

No industry is doing more than tech to help innovators break through old barriers and push the human race forward.

I want to see technology companies hold themselves to those high standards, because the ones who do will have the opportunity to transform the world. With the rise of the Internet and the spread of mobile computing to every corner of the planet, we're in the midst of a watershed moment in human history and we have the chance to not only participate in it, but to shape it. This is a period similar to the Renaissance and the founding of the United States, when the things that we create and the patterns that we put in place are going to influence global civilization for generations and centuries to come.

If that doesn't get you fired up to go the extra mile to build great stuff, then I don't know what will.

A challenge for the builders

So, my challenge to technology builders big and small is this: Make your products about the people and not the technology. Users don't care how fast it runs, they care how fast it can help them get something done. That's the difference between a product with off-the-chart gigahertz versus one with a completely self-evident user experience. It's the latter that matters.

Two stories

If I've still got your attention at this point, I figure I should provide a little value to help you on the journey. So, I'm going to tell you a couple stories. It's not much, but telling stories is what I do. If I can help one person persevere when they're about to give up on building their world-changing project, then it's worth it. So here goes.

1. Shelby's speech

I've been working full-time on the Internet for 11 years. I've navigated two global recessions, watched countless Internet startups come and go, and seen the technology industry develop at light speed right before my eyes.

By far, the darkest time in that whole period was 2002-2003, when the recession pummeled the economy and the general public wondered if this whole Internet thing had just been a sad, overhyped fad. Our company, CNET Networks, had been through multiple layoffs and we were down to a skeleton crew trying to keep the lights on and figure out how to turn our Internet publishing experiment into a long-term business.

It was during this time that I remember our CEO Shelby Bonnie coming to the Louisville office where TechRepublic has its headquarters and doing one of his semi-annual employee meetings. He looked more tired than I'd ever seen him. We'd just been through another round of layoffs and investors continued to hammer our stock, showing no faith in the long-term trajectory of the company.

Despite all of the doom and gloom, Shelby still believed in the Internet and in the company, and he put his money where his mouth was. When investors dropped the stock to around a $1, Shelby personally and publicly bought a ton of shares out of his own pocket to demonstrate his faith. No investment advisor would have ever told him to do that. He already had so much of his personal finances tied up in the future of the company. But, this was not a financial move, it was a statement -- to both investors and to his own employees. He still believed.

But, when he came to Louisville for his company meeting to rally the troops, he was definitely wearing some battle scars. He went through his slide dek showing the future of online advertising and how we were uniquely positioned to grab a big chunk of it once companies abandoned print ads and moved their budgets online (where most of the users in tech had already moved to get their news and information). But, before he took questions from the audience, Shelby put down his slide clicker and made a remarkable statement. Here's what he said, as best as I can remember it:

"I'm going to be honest with you. This past year was really difficult for me, personally. We had to say goodbye to a lot of really great people -- people who poured their hearts and souls into building this company. They left their blood on the floor when they walked out of the building for the last time, and whatever this company achieves in the future, part of its success will belong to them. I just wish I had found a way to keep them part of this team."

This was the rawest and most honest thing I've ever heard a CEO say. And, it's no coincidence that it's also the most memorable thing I've ever heard a CEO say. I couldn't help but think, "If I ever get laid off, I hope the CEO would say -- or at least think -- that kind of thing about me."

It turned into a real "seize the day" kind of message for me. I embraced the thought that you never know when you may be gone or the person next to you may be gone, for whatever reason. So my mantra became, "Do your best work every day -- no exceptions." With that, I also realized that if you work with great people, appreciate them and don't take them for granted. Tell them they rock. Buy them lunch. Buy them coffee. Smile.

Someday soon, they'll move on, or you will. Do great work together today, and let yourself enjoy it.

2. The Hoosier Dome

I was born a Hoosier. I lived in Indiana until I was six and then I moved to the east coast and grew up in the Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware area. But, part of me always remained a Hoosier. I was also a huge sports fan growing up and I remember being really excited when Indianapolis announced that it was building the "Hoosier Dome."

The promise was that it would bring a lot of big-time sporting events to Indiana and maybe even help the state land an NFL football team. At the time, I remember thinking that it seemed like it took forever to build the thing. The reality was that it took about two years to build (like most stadiums) and it cost about $80 million at the time.

It was finished in 1984 and it quickly become one of the most high-profile sporting venues in America. It would go on to host the NCAA Basketball Final Four four times, the NBA All-Star Game in 1985, and the Indiana high school basketball finals (including Damon Bailey's famous win in 1990). Of course, right as the building was being completed it also became the surprise home of the Colts NFL franchise, which decided to relocate from Baltimore to Indianapolis. A couple decades later in 2006, the Colts won the Super Bowl and brought the NFL championship home to the Hoosier Dome.

However, it all came crashing down in 2008 -- literally. On December 20, 2008, the Hoosier Dome was demolished (a shiny, new stadium had already been built across the street to replace it). This massive sports cathedral that had taken two years to erect, was decimated in a matter of moments. The place where I'd watched the Colts and the IU Hoosiers play so many big games over the years was gone.

At the time the Hoosiers Dome was imploded in 2008, the U.S. was falling into another recession and TechRepublic was going through a big product transition, so I was in a reflective mood and I came away with two insights that were relevant to product building.

The first one was that it's far more difficult and time consuming to create than it is to destroy. Creativity takes discipline and patience. Anyone can destroy, but it takes skill and planning and perseverance to create. in general, the world needs a lot more creators and a lot fewer destroyers.

The other insight was that in order to move forward, sometimes you have to have the courage to completely blow up something you built in the past -- no matter how good it used to be. Sometimes that's an $80 million stadium. Sometimes it's an old way of doing things. Sometimes it was your first big product that put your company on the map. Whatever it is, if something that used to be really successful is now holding you back, then you've got to consider the dynamite.

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

37 comments
michaellashinsky
michaellashinsky

Thanks for a great read! I would like to add my 2 cents worth of wisdom. Not everything old is bad, and not everything new is good. They tore down The Hoosier Dome, after only 24 years, after spending $80 Million to build it. I bought a row home that is now a hundred years old. The studs are 4" by 3" oak. When a violent storm hits, I sleep fine knowing my house isn't going anywhere. My friends with new houses don't have that peace of mind. I heard one single window rattle a little bit while they can feel their whole house shudder with each gust of wind. It is the same with technology. I frequently upgrade software that isn't as functional or easy to use as the previous version. I see gadgets and appliances that are more flimsy than their predecessors. If my cell phone was as well built as my mother's manual typewriter was 45 years ago, I might never need another. Yeah, I know about Moore's law, and changing protocols, but a device like that should last long enough to become obsolete, not break and force you to buy another every year.

sujit_z
sujit_z

This has to rank amongst my best reads ... thank you for the overwhelming post

mudpuppy1
mudpuppy1

I really enjoyed the article. Great stories. It's nice to hear there are CEOs who care. You wouldn't know it if all you paid attention to was Hollywood and the main stream media.

SteveB68
SteveB68

Jason, I rarely take the time to comment, but I loved both of your perspectives. I've been in this industry since the beginning (truely! I remember the 4040 processor, lol). I loved the two key ideas - some of our CEO's are still people, and care, and... sometimes you have to let something go to build something better. Very well spoken. Thanks...

mikepritchard
mikepritchard

Jason, As always, a well written article. Thanks for sharing.

felix m
felix m

Great staff. Kenyan ICT's need to read this

m@rcel
m@rcel

For this great article. And if one gives you, the creator, a solid critical comment you can still use this other point of perspective to make an even better product.

widd11e
widd11e

Good advice thanks for sharing.

guy
guy

Yes, I liked it also. You write some good articles Jason

SHCA
SHCA

Wow, what a lot of gloom from the commenters! They must be the ones who've beaten down and given up. Your words inspire true innovators to buck up, find a way around the obstacles, and carry on building the future. From one Engineer who's been beaten down relentlessly for the last 10 years but still goes on designing, Thanks! I needed that!

MyopicOne
MyopicOne

Must be a follower of "servant leadership" or at least actually gives a #^!@%^#, which makes him somebody I'd want to work for.

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

It looks like my old Toshiba Satellite 4000CDT came with Win 95.I have installed Win 2000 and XP in this MACHINE.As of recent I pulled out my old Maxtor floppy to see what I could see.Low and behold when I went to erase the drive with a KillDisk CD there it was.A free space of over 200 gb.It listed the primary C: drive as about 4 gb.I started to erase the free space but quit because it would take 25 hrs. of erase time.My conclusion is that there is something in that computer limiting the drive size.

Andy Raffalski
Andy Raffalski

Good words, all in all. Re: "tell everyone what???s wrong with it and recommend that people buy something else" - I would have stopped with "tell everyone what's wrong", especially the product makers, so that they can improve their products. Without feedback there would be no forward progress. In the end, the buyers can decide what they want to purchase on their own, based on the information supplied to them. Re: "the darkest time in that whole period was 2002-2003" - I remember that time, but I was moving up in my technology support role working at an educational institution (probably a safe bet if someone had a role like that today). In the future, I might write about "the darkest time in that whole period was 2011-2012", as it has been for me. Now I'm off to teaching a volunteer HTML class to newbies. I'm not really complaining.

ITOdeed
ITOdeed

I enjoyed this article. Thanks.

jimrg
jimrg

Whether you're riding the wave or gasping for air your current reality is already fading. Rather than inspire melancholy that should remind us to look to the future as that is where our next action takes place. History may contribute to the future but the 'game' is in the moment, shaping the past,.inspired and built by your own vision of the future. Thanks for the inspiring read Jason, your challenge will indeed "...influence global civilization for generations and centuries to come.". The significant 'stuff' is as yet undone!

mwclarke1
mwclarke1

there are exceptions, but most of the major enterprise companies are stifling creativity in order to meet the bottom line return for investors on current operations, They are so hung up on getting immediate returns they barley will commit to investments back into the company unless pressed hard to do so, Executives like to get their performance bonuses. Also, the Renaissance period died a long time ago, and the founding of the United States seems vain, with everything seeming to go in a backward pace in the US now. I believe in capitalism, but more so for the freedom for all to do busi9ness for them selves weather a single tradesman or corporate giant, but seems like too many corporation are influencing our government/Country too much at the political level for their own greed. We need to reduce that influence, get the corruption out of Washington and will only happen with a regime change (Congress term limits). Congress has given too much power over to other government entities, we need to scale back government and it's influence. Until then this overbearing government influence and lobbyist control, over taxation is going to send any high tech possible and innovation right out of the US (as most is now). We are heading to a point where we will not be able to afford innovation, since I fear the economy,after a possible slight improvement short term is heading for a bigger fall than we think. I fear when that happens, most people will be simply trying to hang onto what they have, survive the next day, more living in poverty and could care less about high tech. We can not even build new power plants, mostly due to wall street not wanting to fork out the high investment in these types of plants since most of our energy is commodity now it takes too long a time to recoup that investment. current nuclear plants are 30+years old. No body wants new ones because they think nuclear energy is not safe, and no one wnats to invest in them. but a 30+ year old one is a lot less safe than a new on to replace it. Eventually they have to be shutdown and since it takes a long time to get one build and on-line we are going to be in an energy crunch before long so I see that impacting industry since energy costs will sky rocket and consumers will be only spending want they can just to survive. At that time a majority will be on some sort of supplemental help or living in poverty and no one will be affording high tech anymore. And new energy sources are still way to complex, expensive to build or be competitive to current sources. And environmentalists do not want us to use more fossil fuel, besides that being limited and controlled commodity, would only get even more prohibitively expensive also as demand for that increases, We are already projected to reach $5.00 a gal in most areas of the US soon, What that will do to peoples pocketbook when comes to paying for high tech. I for one, make a good salary currently, but due to future concerns and retirement planning and next to no returns on any investments to help with that, I am forced to reduce my expenses to put a lot more of my current money in my future retirement savings and that at current projections has me living in a single wide then. I use the cheapest cell phone and cheapest plan, got rid of the iphone, no ipads, or other expensive items, no big 2,999.00 plasma big screen TV, I even put up an antenna and dropped cable (Still too many channels nothing on when wanted for the high costs). I know many other people starting to downsize their tech spending as well to the basic necessities. So the point, it is a vicious full circle, with what we want our government to be to how we want to live and how that is going to get accomplished. Yes tech is a great lifestyle, can provide many improvements to life, but is only going to happen if we can foster that environment, from an economic standpoint, not just a user one.

sarai1313
sarai1313

what do you think that tech builders are doing now .they build acording to demograftics now and keep putting out crap that needs to be replaced every 6 months.an we do cair how fast things run and makeing thing that work not look pritty.you tip your hat not.

nick
nick

Dear Engineers etcetera I pick flaws in your best efforts to develop products. But it is all to inspire you to greater heights and build a brand new post renaissance world. I love you really. Here's a couple of homilys to make me (oops I meant you) feel good. Sorry Jason, your post did not read well to me.

parkinsonp
parkinsonp

As a product developer who has learned that everything starts and ends with the user I would hope Tech Republic also takes this view. IF so then please stop spreading articles out over 20 webpages when it can be one or two pages. While this is great for page view counts and a chance to display more ads it is the most user unfriendly approach I can think of. I don't even bother trying to get the nugget of information out of these articles anymore.

sn.roy
sn.roy

Jason, that was a wonderful read. As a non-techie, I liked the philosophy bit, though you may refer to Hindu mythology for more in-depth understanding, without necessarily believing in that religion. A few pointers therefrom: 1. The Holy Trinity in Hinduism consists of the Creator (Lord Brahma), the Preserver (Lord Vishnu) and the Destroyer (Lord Shiva) together. So for this world, all three facets are necessary. 2. To create something, something else has to be destroyed or its form changed. 3. To win something (say great wealth), you need to lose something (maybe peace of mind). 4. This beautiful world was created out of immense chaos and churn, which are thus not necessarily bad things. 5. The churning of the ocean (in Hindu mythology) produced not only nectar (the desirable things) but also poison (the undesirable or dangerous things). So no churn or change produces only the desired results. 6. Last but not the least, everything is transient, including work-relationships. An office is more like a railway train with your co-passengers changing at every stop and you, too, getting down at some stop. A recession is also, mercifully, transient! Do keep writing such great stuff!

5haggi
5haggi

I like it a lot :-)

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

I read the criticism and always look to see what I can learn from it.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

Thanks SHCA and keep pushing forward!

apotheon
apotheon

Teaching can be among the most rewarding jobs of a technology professional.

MyopicOne
MyopicOne

Add kids that still need to go through college for real fun...

apotheon
apotheon

Here's why things are going downhill: Government regulation favors the big corporations that pay candidates' electoral costs, customers tend to favor those big corporations because they let themselves be led around by the nose (well, by advertising, really), and the big corporations have the money and legal talent available to crush smaller competitors (especially when they have the patent system available as a means of launching spurious legal assaults on competitors who don't have the money to build a massive patent portfolio). Small, entrepreneurial concerns are the places where creativity makes it to market. In short, what you describe is only one of three (or more) major components of the problem that faces us. We, the consumers who want better "products", are another of them; the third is the fact that power feeds its own growth and unassailable strength directly. It feels, sometimes, like those of us who recognize there's such a problem (including you and me, among others) are modern incarnations of Cassandra, able to see the truth but unable to convince anyone of that truth. All we can do is fight against the tide, I suppose, and hope that the tendency of technology to distribute power more widely will somehow win out in the end. One way to do that, I think, is to focus one's entrepreneurial efforts on leveraging business models that do not depend on copyright: open source software development, for instance. That way, even if our startups get crushed, or acquired and corrupted, the basis is out there for others to pick up where we left off. This means not using licensing models that create a competitive advantage for the "owners" of the "intellectual property" that is produced, including copyleft licensing (because the copyleft terms do not apply to the "owner" or author), either not patenting technologies or (even better) granting universal license to use our patents, and building strong communities around our "products". It's a nontraditional approach, but it's an approach that ensures your legacy as an innovator will survive the end of the business entity you use as a vehicle for innovation, or the end of the honesty of that entity if someone else achieves control over it.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

All I can say is that it was written in complete sincerity.

apotheon
apotheon

Sad but true: articles are not the products in which TR deals. Even the community is not the product. Community provides contributors; contributors provide articles. These are only tools, though, toward the actual product -- readers. Readers are being sold to advertisers, the real customers. This is the true business model of any advertising-funded business, period. An advertising-funded business that fails to recognize this on some level is a business that is bound for an unsightly end. Yes, the readers and community have to be treated well within certain constraints to ensure that the product does not vanish, but whatever delivers the highest quality product to the advertisers is the real goal. If this means spurning thoughtful readers to some extent in service of bringing in readers with money to spend, so be it. The take-away point, here, is that "everything starts and ends with the user" is not an accurate description of the business model TechRepublic has to maintain. While I was a contributor for TechRepublic, I aimed to ensure that my articles served the community, and this in turn seemed to work well for serving the advertisers at the expense of not allowing me to take shortcuts with my writing. This means I did not write 150-word introductions to a facile survey or poll, and I did not write a total of 200 words' worth of captions for a series of randomly selected screenshots from a list of applications for a mostly pointless slideshow. Those kinds of articles are easy, fast ways to draw eyeballs and direct them to advertising on the site. Instead, I sweated out something like 15K-20K words of articles a month that made meaningful points, explained useful tools and techniques, and tried to educate readers. My approach was probably no more or less effective in drawing readers than the more facile approach that requires no real investment in the task, so I'm sure I was not considered any more or less valuable a contributor on a per-article basis than someone who does a good job of coming up with controversial survey topics that contain no substance. One consequence of the TR approach to selecting contributors, though -- of drawing them directly from its community -- is that I think a lot of the writers feel either beholden to the community or invested in their own appearance of importance, both of which tend to lead to a greater effort in providing meaningful content. The occasional trolling commentary that knowingly makes false statements, pointless three-question survey that stirs up community sentiment, or slideshow that gets linked from other sources without conveying any really useful information still slips into the article lineup, but the general trend is, I think, for contributing writers who are invested in providing real value to the community, and that's a good thing. Support the writers who, as Jason Hiner put it, "pour their hearts" into the content they create. Keep them honest, and they'll keep serving you. When support for them wanes, the quality of TR will wane with it as it skews its priorities toward writers who are easier to find and produce cheaper content that requires less management but still brings in eyeballs for the ads.

nick
nick

Seems as though I am a minority, looks like it reads well to many others too.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

to be an online trade publication and peer-to-peer community for technology professionals. Users come here because we provide useful information to help them make good buying decisions, learn IT best practices, and understand what's happening in the tech world. That's the stuff that editors and writers are focused on every day. That's the crux of what we do. Advertisers come to TechRepublic because we have a great community of highly-engaged users. If we ever lose that, the advertisers will walk out the door right behind them. So the audience is always first -- this is even more the case on TechRepublic since 80% of our writers are drawn directly from the audience (as you alluded to). That doesn't mean we can do everything that everyone in the audience wants to do or wishes that TechRepublic had. But, if the site ceases to useful and usable then people won't show up, and then it's game-over. That keeps us focused on bringing our A-game every single day.

apotheon
apotheon

I can see that, as usual, people don't like to confront the truth. I wonder how this plays into the future, in terms of supporting writers who do good work as opposed to letting things go to hell in a handbasket because a pointless slideshow that would have been better presented as a bullet-points article takes less time out of the American Idol and Survivor watching schedule.

apotheon
apotheon

quote: I realize you were trying to be philosophical but the implication was that the TR staff only view readers as a means to an end. I was trying to be realistic and pragmatic, not philosophical. What you describe as "the implication" is actually your inference; the implication is that the corporate business strategists only view readers as a means to an end. TR staffers are, from what I've encountered, True Believers (to borrow a phrase) in the community approach that is currently the mainstay of its business model. I absolutely believe that the moment the people holding the reins higher up the chain believe that community approach should be subverted and redirected to other ends to improve revenues, though, that will happen -- and the TR staffers we know and love will be fired, if necessary, to make it happen. That's why I was making the point that it's important to support the kind of writing that treats the readers as ends in themselves, delivering content with depth rather than superficial, flashy stuff with nothing meaningful behind it. If you're looking for a reason to be insulted, there's nothing I can do to stop you from finding it, even where it wasn't intended and where there wasn't any statement made that has to be interpreted as such. That's on you.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

"Readers are being sold to advertisers, the real customers." I realize you were trying to be philosophical but the implication was that the TR staff only view readers as a means to an end. That's utter nonsense and it's an insult to all the people in editorial, product development, and engineering who work their butts off every day to make TechRepublic a great site and whose sole focus is on delivering a great product for users. In this business, what you said is the equivalent of calling all of those people a bunch of sellouts. Now, people call me all kinds of names every day in the forums and it's just part of my job to take it, but I get pretty defensive when people insult my hard-working colleagues. I don't think you intended it as an insult, but it was. And, yes, I still appreciate the other kind words you said about TechRepublic writers and the general mix of content.

apotheon
apotheon

I think you just bypassed my point and argued something else entirely.

apotheon
apotheon

Note: I didn't say there's no such thing as a good slideshow. I spoke of particular types of slideshows as an example of the (relatively rare, on TR) case of bad content. Judging by your two direct responses to me, it seems like you completely missed the fact I was pointing out that TR's strength is its community-based contributorship, and safeguarding the motivation to keep that the case is a task the community must take upon itself. Please, don't just ignore the fact of what I actually said to focus only on perceived insults that were never offered. If you can't accept an unblinking look at the circumstances that suggests it's important to support good content in a manner that takes into account the economic realities of TR's business model, I guess you're just not as engaged with the community's needs as you like to think -- that's you, not TR as a whole, considering I have no idea how much your tendency to just brush away about 70% of what I said is a matter of "party line". edit: . . . and thanks for making it personal as a way to just dismiss what I had to say. That's always fun.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

Slideshows are an extremely small percentage of the content that TechRepublic creates. We typically publish about 80 articles per week. Meanwhile, we create about 3-5 slideshows per week (and republish another 10-12 from our sister site CNET). If you don't like slideshows, feel free to ignore them. However, we do them because a lot of people enjoy absorbing information visually in addition to simply reading. On many list-based slideshows (like lists of Android and iPhone apps) we now publish them as both slideshows and articles so that people can view them whichever way they choose.

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