I have been involved in the technology industry for 20 years on a formal level, and informally for many more; I actually got my start programming an old Apple II.
Yet, as much as I like technology, its fascinating cool factor and its malleability – ever try to program a chair or a book, or join a toothbrush and ice skate to make something entirely new? – ultimately, technology is about changing the real world. The iPhone is not fascinating because it can surf the Web or do email; it is amazing because doing these things while away from your desk allows you to take vacations you could not otherwise, or not get lost, or save pictures. Technology’s gift is its ability to make a difference in the real world.
I spent about a decade working IT and operations in large financial firms. While there, I used to love to read “CIO” magazine. Unfortunately, at a certain point in the last decade that magazine tried to cut costs – including good reporters and magazine length – and became a shadow of itself; I don’t even know if it is still around. But in its heyday, the featured articles were never about technology or security or anything else technology related. They were about a firm using technology to make an enormous difference in its business and ultimately bringing value to its customers.
In the mid-90s, I had the enjoyment of hearing Jim Barksdale, then the CEO of Netscape, speak. UPS and FedEx used to be companies that took your package and delivered it; Barksdale turned them around to add detailed IT for package tracking and optimal delivery. Not only did costs go down, but so did delivery times while you could actually track your package in real time.
Last week, Andreesen Horowitz announced an investment in Local Motion, a company that is bringing optimal operations using technology to enterprise car fleets: General Electric, US Army, you name it. Think Zipcar done for enterprises. The amount of waste in these manually managed fleets is astounding. And yet, it persists for millions of cars in thousands of corporate fleets. The founders of Local Motion are using technology – GPS, smartphones, cloud, wireless Internet – to make the world for fleet managers and the car users worlds better, and saving a lot of money for the companies… not to mention cutting down on pollution. They will make money – hopefully quite a lot – but they are obsessed with making the world a better place.
Engineering is cool, but technology is really about making a difference.