Before embarking on this second incarnation of my blog, I reflected on the past four years of my experiences in an effort to extract a theme closest to my heart. What stood out was an intersection of three areas. I think it's a particularly powerful intersection, one worth taking a deeper look into. These three areas are Technology, Venture, and Design.
But let's step back a little.
We live in a bimodal age of both specialization and "skilllessness". Some of us specialize – they earn their PhDs, they deepen their understanding of a particular subject matter, they become comfortable in their very narrow and specific job roles. Others go in the opposite direction – they remain "generalists," a term which, more often than not, means having no particular skill but boasting the general ability to deal with people, with maybe an uncommon amount of common sense sprinkled on top. If successful, the former become fantastic individual contributors, and the latter become great managers.
But if we want to aim higher – if we want to change the world in small ways or in big ways, we need to change the way we look at it, and we need to revisit our role in it. We need to know enough about everything to tackle the increasingly complex problems, straggling the increasingly larger number of distinct fields. But we also need to know a lot about enough things to be able to actually make a difference. You may have heard of "T-shaped professionals", having some breadth of knowledge and one area of depth. I want to go one step further, advocating for the need to have deep expertise and experience in more than one area, in addition to the breadth of knowledge elsewhere. At the most basic level, it's because the best insight comes out of understanding several things so well that you can spot the subtlest of connections between them.
There are lots of combinations of areas which can offer such synergy, but I want to focus on three which I think are the most powerful.
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Technology truly is the driver of mankind's progress. Technology – literally the act of applying our knowledge – has a transformative ability. An insanely powerful flavor of technology that emerged in the twentieth century – software – is the best testament of that. Software frees us from most physical constraints. You can stack software on top of other software, which lets us create remarkable leverage. Fluency in technology – and software, specifically – is indispensable in the twenty-first century.
Many of the people I interact with hope that a superficial understanding of technology will do. After all, they can outsource the technical work. Well, as many firsthand experiences have taught me, there is absolutely nothing worse than having someone who does not understand technology attempt to manage, or in some meaningful way contribute to a problem that requires technology. Those people are like that broken wheel in the grocery cart – yes, it supports the cart, but it's really not that much more difficult with just three wheels, and boy is that broken wheel frustrating! You have to stop all the time, adjust the wheel and hope that it will continue moving in the right direction.
Here in business school, some of my classmates hope that they can just take an intro CS class and check the technical box. While they will no doubt do very well in that class, I'm afraid it's not enough. The flip side of that ability of technology to provide massive leverage is that to understand (let alone to harness) technology means to have to dig very deep, layer beneath layer, to achieve proficiency. You not only have to be able to write a Hello World! application; you have to understand what makes the computer print Hello World. It's a deep stack to understand, and for that, you also need to have a good command of mathematics. One CS class just won't cut it. It's about a mindset, a way of seeing the world.
I was fortunate to be exposed to leverage-providing technology very early in my life, thanks to my father who foresaw the rise of software and smuggled a computer into the country for me to play with. For those who believe in the importance of technology, but who don't have the background, the best advice I can give is to unconditionally immerse oneself in it. Set a goal – to write a photo-sharing app, or something – and be relentless in getting to that goal. At first, you won't even know what questions to ask. Struggle! Get help, google incessantly, learn by failing a hundred times which stackoverflow comment is useful and which one is useless.
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The desire to build a business, or a deep understanding of what makes businesses successful and unsuccessful, is an ability that I only learned to appreciate relatively late in life.
Business is the ultimate applied science. The best way to test an idea is to build some life support around it and open it up to the world, to see if it can survive. You may have arrived upon the best theoretical result, but to change the world, you should turn your theory into a sustainable business. Being venture-minded is also a great way to ensure that you don't solve problems that nobody has, and that you don't just create a science fair project. Subject your ideas to the harshness of reality. If they blossom, you have come up with something of great value.
The best way to acquire a business intuition is to be in business. You have to have enough exposure to what makes a business tick. I spent six years at a company, but – while the management was wonderfully transparent, allowing me to learn what a company should and should not do – I barely saw the tip of the iceberg. That's why I recommend joining a company small enough so that you can understand fully what it does and why it does what it does.
You can also start a venture. The learning curve is steepest, and the things you learn you will never forget; but you will be subjected to the ebbs and flows of luck.
If you haven't had much experience with business, you can try business school. That's what I chose – and I'm glad I did. By immersing myself in a rich ecosystem focused on business issues, I've acquired an intuition I haven't had before. I think about the world differently now. But all the theory, the cases, the conversations are just one part of the equation. You have to go out and apply what you learned.
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Design, or rather, the art of human experience, is another area that I consider essential. You may have the best technology, and the best business model, but to be truly successful, you have to understand how your product or service integrates with humans, their workflows, their pains, needs and desires.
You can't change the world if you don't interact with humans, be it a product that you design that people want to use (Tesla is changing the world – it's doing so by creating products that people love), or an institution you establish (which consists of a number of human beings), or even a book you write (which is read by humans).
Many of my friends think of design – or the experience that humans have with their creations – as secondary. I think that's what differentiates good solutions from great solutions. You can't outsource design: if you think you can, you betray the critical fact that you don't understand your product and your customer enough.
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Understanding technology, being venture-minded, and caring about design and the human experience are incredibly powerful. In the next few decades, as software continues to eat the world, as technology roles remain the most lucrative, and as techniques such as analytics and hypothesis-driven experimentation push their way into most job descriptions; as consumers and businesses alike continue to demand human-centric products and services that understand user needs and reduce frictions to use; and as more ideas start seeing the light of day in the form of viable businesses, these three areas will seem just as indispensable as the ability to communicate or to use a computer is now.
Better be on the forefront than try to catch up when it's too late.