What Defines a Technology Leader? [Biggest Challenges Revealed]
Turing. Jobs. Gates. It’s names like these that one tends to think as leaders in technology. Big names. World-changing names. The names of visionaries who made technology the dominating superpower it is today. Musk. Bezos. Wozniak. Don’t want to forget them!
In today’s constantly evolving landscape, there are plenty of challenges those in the technology sector must face, and the ability to adapt to those changes is what separates the followers from the leaders.
Those core challenges haven’t really changed since technology began its true and total domination – although how leaders respond to those changes defines them.
Challenge 1: Leaders must be prepared for a fast-paced world.
The tech biz never sleeps. Not for a second. It can’t afford to, and any company that’s caught ‘sleeping on the job’, as it were will reap precisely what they sow, i.e. 20% of nothing at all.
Just consider the sad demise of Nokia. You could level just about any charge at Nokia for failing to retain its place as the dominant phone-maker – at its peak, in 2007, the Finnish mobile manufacturer had an impressive 41% market share – but it was its refusal to act swiftly that sealed its fate.
One of the main problems was, as chiefly a hardware company, software was side-lined. Big mistake. Despite the iPhone’s success, Nokia – or, at least, its CEO Anssi Vanjoki – flat-out refused to use the open-source (and cheaper) Android platform. Instead, the company’s software teams split into two: One worked on upgrading the existing Nokia Symbian OS, while another worked on a brand-new operating system. That’s when the real trouble started. The two teams were battling for limited resources at Nokia, grounding development to a halt, and ultimately taking the best part of a year to reach any agreements with key people like chipset manufacturers.
And a year is like a lifetime in technology terms. Not even Microsoft’s $8bn buy-out could save the once-and-former king of mobile phone. It would’ve been a lot cheaper and easier to have used Google Android (a point proved in the fact that they’re now intending to sell Android-only devices).
Oh, Dell. Sandberg. Hastings. Those are a few more tech innovators worth learning from.
Challenge 2: Leaders need to constantly innovate.
A tech company that doesn’t innovate will, eventually, end up selling rather expensive door-stops – if they sell anything at all. Sure, that’s true of all businesses seeking a real legacy, but, as the case of Nokia prove, it’s even more important for those in the tech sector.
Enter Blockbuster. Remember them? Heck, remember when physically renting videos was a thing? There were two major problems with Blockbuster: it made most of its money by charging customers late fees, and it wasn’t ready to innovate in changing times. In fact, its insular business model actively discouraged experimentation of any kind.
Back in 2000, Netflix founder Reed Hastings approached Blockbuster and offered to strike up a deal. Netflix would run Blockbuster’s online arm, while the big BB would promote Netflix in store. Blockbuster declined. Actually, according to Netflix CFO Barry McCarthy, Blockbuster literally laughed them out of the room. They already had their own video-on-demand service (which swiftly faltered due to lack of content, by the way), so why did they need this young upstart?
They then proceeded to try competing with Netflix by offering a movies-by-mail service, but totally failed to innovate as online streaming took off. In 2002 Karen Raskopf, spokeswoman for Blockbuster claimed that ‘VOD is further off than we thought it was. We keep monitoring all this stuff, and when it looks like a sustainable profitable model, we can get into these things.’ So, it wasn’t as if they were unaware of streaming movies online, but rather than leading the technological charge, the rental company stuck to physical products. What we have here, then, is a failure to innovate (one of the 7 habits of highly effective training organisations). Blockbuster was the supposed home entertainment leader who provided absolutely no leadership.
Did I mention Dorsey? Page and Brin? Zuckerberg? Those technology leaders literally changed the way we interact online. That’s innovation!
Challenge 3: Leaders require a real vision.
Leadership in technology, above all else, requires vision. It reminds me of the Sherlock Holmes quote, ‘You see, but I observe.’ It’s easy to look at a piece of technology, to acknowledge its existence, even, but it takes a real leader to divine untapped potential from it.
It was vision that separated Apple’s Steve Jobs from the executives Xerox. Back in 1979, at a time when the Apple Lisa was in development, Jobs and a select crew took a tour around Xerox research centre and demoed a few of the products they were working on – a trade-off for a pretty favourable stock deal.
What Jobs saw altered computing forever – and we’re still using it now: The graphical user interface, or GUI.
Up until that point, computer users had to input lines of text code to run anything. Hardly a seamless way to work, requiring real talent, time and zero typos to operate a computer. But with the Xerox Alto – a computer not designed for the commercial market, but used extensively at Xerox HQ – Jobs saw a new, intuitive way to control computers; one that mimicked a real-world desktop, with icons to denote processes. To hear Jobs tell it:
"I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen in my life. Now, remember it was very flawed. What we saw was incomplete, they’d done a bunch of things wrong. We didn’t know that at the time, but still thought they had the germ of the idea was there and they’d done it very well. And within, y’know, ten minutes it was obvious to me that all computers would work like this some day. It was obvious. You could argue about how many years it would take. You could argue about who the winners and losers might be. You couldn’t argue about the inevitability, it was so obvious."
Obvious, at least, to Jobs, who possessed the vision Xerox lacked. He set to work altering the Apple Lisa, and later the Apple Macintosh, to incorporate GUI. Apple didn’t exactly steal the concept; they built upon it.
Oh, ok, they completely stole the idea, which was once described as the greatest heist in technology. Sort of. Jobs once said, ‘Picasso had a saying: Good artists copy, great artists steal.’ On the other hand, Apple developer Andy Hertzfeld claimed that, ‘Maybe in the very broadest sense we were inspired by Xerox. But literally no code was taken, I mean not a single line of code.’ Essentially, it was the evolution of an idea, refined by Jobs and replicated across personal computers.
Jobs saw potential where others saw…well, who knows what they saw. But they lacked the vision to understand just how revolutionary the GUI was. Or, as Jobs put it:
"They were copier-heads that just had no clue about a computer or what it could do. And, so, they just grabbed defeat from the greatest victory in the computer industry. Xerox could have owned the entire computer industry today."
That reminds me, we can’t leave Kalanick and Camp, Ma, Rometty, and Benioff off our list of tech heroes, can we?
There’s more to technology leaders than possessing a relentless, innovative vision. Beyond a fierce streak, they must totally understand their market and their consumers. They make interaction with customers effortless and keep the business running and growing, constantly assessing how to make lives even easier as technology continues to advance.
That requires knowledge, authenticity, incredible decision-making skills and a willingness to challenge the status quo; it means effective collaboration and communication of ideas, visions and, ultimately, future success.