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