Monthly Archives: January 2013

What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from a Cop

He was a crusty, retired New York City cop, now driving a cab. I was an IBM manager on my way to the airport. We struck up a conversation.

“An ex-cop?” I gushed. “I’ll betcha you’ve been in some real pickles. Surely you are packing heat right now.” He scowled at me the rear view mirror.

“Nope. I don’t pack heat,” he growled.

“Why not?”

“Because when you carry a gun,” he said, changing lanes, “You think with a gun. And when you don’t carry a gun, you gotta think with your head.”

And so it is with start-ups that take VC money. If they are not careful, they tend to solve problems by throwing money grenades at them, thinking with their money instead of being resourceful.

So take a lesson from a cop: “You gotta think with your head.”


It was chaos. We heard a deep rumble, the great ship shuddered, and within hours the deck chairs began to slide as she listed to port. But the band still played, the bar was open, and the ship’s captain assuaged our anxiety with words of reassurance. The Titanic? No ~ IBM in the 1980’s. I joined them in 1983, fresh out of UVA’s engineering school. The first iceberg IBM hit was the PC, and later on it hit another: the Internet. For 17 years I stayed onboard as concern turned to chaos, and eventually bloodshed when in the 1990’s the company cut its bloated workforce by 60,000 souls. I was one of the survivors.

For years after, I thought of myself as “the corporate type.” I mean, what company was more corporate than IBM, with its blue suits, company song, no-alcohol policy, and standard issue haircut? But then I realized, as should everyone else ~ a house on fire is not a house, and a sinking ship is not a ship.

During the last ten of those 17 years, IBM was desperately seeking, and eventually found, a way to stay afloat. That decade was time when almost any new idea, however unorthodox, was welcome ~ a time when creative, non-linear, entrepreneurial thinkers like myself were heroes. Survivors learned to embrace adaptibility and flexibility. We learned to look outside IBM for survival lessons, and we quickly emulated best practices. We accepted that IBM was no longer setting the industry’s pace, no, they were setting ours, and it was more rapid and unpredictable than we ever could have imagined.

And so I stayed. When IBM finally righted itself in 2000 and set a stable course ~ I jumped ship. After a nomadic childhood (I attended 13 schools in nine years, some overseas) and a thrilling professional life, I am not suited to stability. I love the chaos.

I am deeply grateful, however, for what I learned during my IBM years, of the value of process, how to sell consultatively in a global market, how to comport myself in front of international executives, and when to trust my instincts and run against the tide. Most importantly, I know how to recognize the deep rumble that everyone else waves off as nothing, but we survivors know means something else. Iceberg.

“Ironman vs. Siri” and the Mobile Battle for What’s “Cool”

Fonzi. The “Fonz”. He is one of the most iconic images in television history. His character was supposed to epitomize what was considered “cool” in the 1950’s, like a comic hybrid of James Dean, Elvis, and Johnny Cash. The only thing missing was the cigarette ~ The Fonz did not smoke (“Happy Days” was a family sit-com). But lots of other cool people smoke, and many a young person takes up smoking because they think it makes them cool. Plus it gives them something to do with their hands. The social value of smoking is a primary reason why smoking is so hard to eradicate.

Which brings me to texting. My daughters, who are in their twenties, have given me the rules. If I call and they don’t answer, I am not to leave them a voice message. That’s unacceptable. In fact, they have all told me that if I do leave them a voice message, they delete it at the first sound of my voice. No, instead I am to hang up without leaving a message, and they will see that I have called and call back. If I have something important to tell them, like “Where is the $200 I lent you six months ago and that you promised to pay back last month?” ~ I am to text it. My girlfriend’s three children, who are also in their twenties, have told her the same thing. These are the rules.

To us, this is stupid and inefficient. I don’t understand this protocol. I mean, I get that in the age of tweeting, long-winded and rambling voice messages like the kind my girlfriend leaves for her children (she ignores the rules) are uncool. Then even I want to hit the 2X playback speed button I so love on the iPhone music app, which is great for listening to Podcasts and audiobooks in half the time. Afterall, our brains process verbal input much faster than the normal speaking voice, so it makes sense that my children would want me to get to the point and get there quickly. What I don’t get is the texting rule. Why would I not leave a short, concise voice message (“Where is the $200 I lent…) while I am driving, and instead pull over and text it, or worse, not pull over and text it? The answer, I believe, has to more to do with the social value of how young people interact with their mobile devices, and less to do with the practicality of it.

Observe young people. They hunch over their smartphones, furiously pecking out text messages with their thumbs. They are blazing fast at it. They can have several text exchanges in the same amount of time I drawl out a single sentence. To them, my vocal communiques must seem glacially slow. Plus texting and tweeting looks cool. It says, “I am always in touch. Someone wants to hear from me so badly that it cannot wait, not even a second.” That exchange is the priority ~ more important than whatever is going on right around them, which is why people text at inopportune times (In the theater? Please.) They are actually communicating two ways: 1) To the person to whom they are texting and 2) To everyone around them. The message in #2 is: “You are less important.” This technique of establishing one’s place at the top of a social hierarchy is, and always has been, a way of establishing one’s “coolness.” The mobile device, like the cigarette, is just a tool in the process.

Plus texting gives people something to do with their hands, and what young people do is simply amazing. I played my girlfriend’s son at “Gears of War 3” the other day, and he kicked my ass. Again, I was way, way, waaaaayyy too sloooow. So it only makes sense that the young man would transfer his considerable hand-eye coordination skills, learned on the X-Box, to his mobile device, and choose texting, which uses the same skills, over voice interaction, which for him is slower. This brings me to voice-recognition as a man-machine interface technique, and to “Ironman 3”.

In the movie, Tony Stark designs his Ironman suit with the help of a computer, and he interacts with that computer using…his hands. We’ve all seen this type of man-machine interaction in the movies: our hero furiously wiping and swiping psychedelic images suspended in the air while indecipherable text scatters across the screen. If you are a young person, this is how it’s done! Where is voice-reco? Nowhere! That was cool over 40 years ago when Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise talked to his computer, giving it commands like “Go to Red Alert” and so forth. But voice control as an interface technique is not cool now. In fact, it is positively pre-historic.

These social factors are the only explanation I can come up with for why my software development team, which are all in their twenties, rolled their eyes and resisted when I urged them to consider voice-recognition as an interface for our next mobile app. “Not accurate enough,” they said. Right. Like “y shud we uz it 2 say ne thng prolly dum lol” is more accurate. I regularly use Dragon Dictation, while driving, to create text messages, or even short emails, which I can then quickly send at a stoplight or by pulling over. Fast. Efficient. Practical. Safe. And way more accurate than texting. But not cool (apparently). Not Ironman 3.

So our hands will be, as long as young software designers get their way, the primary way we interact with mobile devices, for some rational reasons and some irrational ones. The irrational ones bother me, as I like being efficient with my time, which means choosing the right tool for the right task. I am using a full size computer keyboard to write this post, and I am using more than my thumbs. (Free tip to Dragon Dictation ~ pay for a product placement in Ironman 4 and watch sales improve.) And the irrational reasons kill. Texting while driving now surpasses drinking and driving for fatalities. It might even kill more than smoking.

And that is not cool.