I still get a little uncomfortable when people ask about my big new startup idea. I feel like they expect to hear something sexy like “the Uber for dog walking” or “the Tinder for over 50 singles” or “the Airbnb for extreme camp sites.” When I tell them I want to re-imagine how small and medium enterprises (SME) leverage technologies like Microsoft Excel to innovate, I fear the worst; an apathetic meh, well that’s something, you know, good luck with that, awkward silence. Plus three years is an eternity in the tech world. Whatever tool I am using to write this post will probably be long obsolete by then. Why choose to spend my energy on such a non-sexy idea?
The primary goal of small and medium business is to create value - whether it be business value, customer value, societal value, etc. We all expect technology to enable this value creation while at the same time we suspect there is usually a slight disconnect between technology and business. I think this disconnect has always been bigger than we care to admit.
About ten years ago I worked for a company called Concurrent Computer Corporation. They made Video on Demand systems. It was one of the best jobs I ever had; the software and engineering talent there was overflowing. I was a C++ developer, junior enough not to be saddled with any particular responsibility other than helping to maintain and extend the codebase.
The QA department there was formidable, they had what seemed to me to be a huge shiny lab full of headends streaming all kinds of content in coordinated fashion. The developer lab was much smaller, a tiny room with random equipment laying everywhere. Nobody ever went in there.
One day my boss polled for a volunteer to hop offline and spend time setting up the development lab proper. I like to think I jumped at the chance but maybe I didn’t and just got stuck with it. I do remember spending a month in there racking and stacking, learning how to configure headends and when I was done the lab was a marvel of technology; a beacon of hope in some ways. I was proud of myself at least; hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment neatly organized into separate networks and test racks, brimming with possibility. Project success!
A few months later the head of the QA lab stopped by my desk at like 8pm on his way out the door. He may have been a few years older than me but seemed very young for his position, was in charge of a huge lab, had his own office, had a swagger and coolness about how he approached his job, and was one of the many folks I looked up to at Concurrent as a role model.
Zac, fantastic work on the lab but I can’t help but be a little sad.
Everyday when I leave I peek through the window in the door and I never see any lights blinking. Shouldn’t the lights be blinking?
He said there was a quarter million dollars worth of equipment in the lab just sitting there. Shouldn’t the computers be doing something, like every minute of every day and especially overnight?
That was the first time I realized how a talented and functional technology department could still be disconnected from the business. Everyone on our team was an A+ at their job but our team efforts weren’t maximizing value in this instance. The bigger picture was being lost while the lights weren’t blinking.
Ten years later I surely know how to keep the lights blinking but I still find myself questioning why we do some of the things we do inside our technology departments. There are lots of reasons and so many factors at play for these disconnects with the business but the question is this. If we look at things a little differently can we harness technology to help us create value in our businesses with orders of magnitude more success than ever before? I think people are discovering that we can and I think this is the future of technology in SME. In our new global economy we can no longer afford to ignore these disconnects.