With lessons from the .com bubble duly noted, today’s tech is a far cry from the ‘90s. While optimism still abounds, it’s optimism based in data, research, testing, and iteration. Rather than trying to change the market to fit the product, the product changes to fit the market. The tech ether is richer in imagination and raw talent than it ever has been. Attracted by possibility and opportunity, people from all educational and work backgrounds are flocking to tech, creating a robust multi-disciplinary tech citizenry that will be able to sustain itself. Tech and tech culture, once insular and reclusive, has gone mainstream.
We are in an age of exponential innovation, in which every major industry is being disrupted. Deloitte’s report “From Exponential Technologies to Exponential Innovation”1 points out:
The disruptive potential of exponential technologies is amplified when they interact and combine in innovative ways. The impact is further amplified when technologies coalesce into open platforms and ecosystems. These reduce the investment and lead time required to drive the next wave of innovation into markets by enabling people and technologies to rapidly build on previous waves of innovation.
The Renaissance Engineer
Thanks to Apple, today’s consumer is acutely design-minded. They’re also becoming acutely engineering-minded, making their voices heard in the reviews of the App Store and Google Play when things don’t work well. Behind every incredible product is an incredible engineer. No matter how beautiful, people will not love a product that doesn’t work. As digital products and the companies that build them are evolving, so are the skillsets of the engineers needed to build them. One of these necessary evolutions is that engineers become more consumer and product oriented. As Bob Evans, Senior VP Oracle, says2:
[Engineers must] engage with customers to understand what they want and need, engage with product development to share ideas and insights and possibilities, and engage with the entire company to bring alive the right types of information sharing and processes that lead to more relevant and more successful products and experiences.
In other words, perhaps more so than anyone else working in tech, an engineer must be a polymath, a Renaissance (Wo)man. They must be multi-lingual, creative, strategic, and obsessed with improvement. They must write clean, elegant code. They must be able to work with and across teams to meet business objectives. They must be able to not only build rock solid products but also rock solid processes along the way. They must be able to identify learnings and immediately apply them.
Because tech grows and moves so quickly, the demand for such engineers far outstrips the supply. Finding and keeping talent is a pain point for companies large and small and will continue to be an ongoing challenge. Those companies that are able to hang on to top notch engineers do so by fostering an engineering culture, one marked by constant learning, interesting change, and encouraging creativity. Consider Facebook, a company that these days may appear more media than tech, but whose recent release of their Hack programming language reminds the world — and, more importantly, prospective talent — that they are engineers at heart. Apple, too, has reminded the world of their engineering culture with the WWDC announcement of Swift, the programming language that seeks to lower the barrier to iOS and OS development.
Another tactic for finding engineering talent is the acqui-hire — something the industry has seen a lot of in the last couple of years and a trend that’s likely to continue. For example, from 2012 – 2014, Facebook has spent $24B on acquisitions; Tencent, $7B; Alibaba, $5B; and Google, $3B (KPCB, 2014).
Once a startup has a proven market, a passionate (if not small) user base, and revenue coming in, it begs the question: When does a startup stop being a startup? Opinion varies. One thought: When a company stops looking ahead to its next competitor, and starts looking over their shoulder at the competition one Kickstarter away from overtaking them. Cornering and keeping a part of the market is just the beginning. Even if it’s a previously untapped opportunity, the competition will come. A good company’s goal might be to keep its head above water, but a great company’s goal is to hover above the water. To set themselves apart, companies must be intrapreneurial, long-sighted, and open to change. Small companies vow to stay entrepreneurial while larger companies vow to become so, but this mindset is either part of a company’s cultural fabric or it’s not.
PayPal, for example, is developing new products left and right (58 new ones in 2013 alone)3. Amazon, not content to be just the largest online retailer in the world, continues to explore and invest in new ventures in tech and media. Google’s interests and ambitions appear bottomless. These are juggernauts, but their behaviour, driven by a relentlessly entrepreneurial culture, suggests otherwise.
For Startups by startups
As cloud computing and storage continue to drop in price, so do overhead costs, making it easier than ever for lean startups to hit the ground running. However, many of the values rightly prized by startup culture — quickness, agility, minimalism — can prove to be stumbling blocks when it comes to the day to day running of a company. Things like scheduling, resourcing, billing, storage, networking, etc. can become logistical nightmares for companies, affecting their ability to scale without another round of funding or acquisition. These pain points have given rise to an explosion of companies that deliver SaaS solutions to startups and entrepreneurs.
Increasingly, organizations are partnering with other companies to help them navigate the ever-changing waters of the modern market, which continue to be driven by exponential innovation. Large companies may find themselves stymied by process and a corporate structure that does not allow them to move quickly. Smaller companies may find they don’t have the resources to scale. There was a time when these performance pressures might have been a death sentence with little recourse, with the large companies aging into irrelevance and the small companies never making it out of their infancy. Fortunately, exponential innovation can also be a force for positive change, provided the right partner is engaged. Such partnerships can be incredibly rich, yielding “a seemingly endless array of new products, services, businesses, and new technologies”.4
Examples of our work
- We are working with a large company to create meaningful connections between their businesses and help them scale. We are doing this on two fronts: 1) Helping them move quickly on initiatives by applying creative engineering to augment and support their in-house teams 2) Helping them expand their product offering by providing product strategy and development.
- A backend tech company approached us to provide UI development for a new product, for which we are providing UI and front end development expertise. We have since extended our relationship, helping them strategize the development of future products.
- Deloitte. “From exponential technologies to exponential innovations.” Deloitte University Press. 2013.
- Evans, Bob. “The top 10 strategic CIO issues for 2014.” Forbes. 10 Jan, 2014.
- Brody, Quentin. “The threats that help PayPal.” The New York Times. 15 Mar, 2014.
- Deloitte, 2013.