Friday, November 12, 2010

Fail Early, Fail Often? Not.

Business is full of pithy aphorisms.  One that you hear frequently is meant to be a mantra for innovation: Fail early, fail often.  The idea behind this little nugget is to experiment with many variations on an idea without investing much in any of them.  Get out there and get market feedback as quickly and as cheaply as you can.  Sounds like good advice, doesn't it?

I spent my career working with inventors and not many of them attempted to fail -- early or otherwise.  And they certainly didn't want to fail often.  That was a one-way ticket to unemployment or at least being moved into a position where they couldn't spend the company's money quite so easily.  Inventors work more from the old saw: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.  The first time out, their invention is a flop.  The second time it might be an even bigger fiasco.  But the dedicated inventor "knows" that their idea is just what is needed to make the world a better place (and make them a boatload of money).  They might finally even get an idea out that does the technical job but the money is another story.

The histories of technology and innovation are filled with stories of inventors who pioneered a new area only to go bankrupt.  Often, a savvy business person was watching in the wings waiting for market conditions to improve or shift.  Then with the biggest risks of invention out of the way, they would turn it into a money-making venture by better marketing or more efficient manufacturing.  And what of the inventor?  Often, these intrepid souls would be on to their next great idea.

Are inventors naive?  Are they over-confident about their ideas or abilities?  Why do they continue in the face of such daunting odds?  It seems to me that inventors have two drives: to shepherd their wonderful idea into the world and to get rich doing it.  At their core, they are made up of creativity and optimism.  They have a great inner eye that lets them see a new and untested idea before others can see it.  Their energy comes from their need to create.  They are more akin to artists than engineers.

But the same characteristics that makes a great inventor makes for a really lousy business person.  The business mind is focused on efficiency, scale, and profit.  Business has its own form of creativity but it shares little with that of the inventor.  Once an invention has proven itself, the business person wants nothing to do with further change.  Change is wasteful.  Change is inefficient. Now the drive is to get it out at the lowest possible cost.

It more often happens that an inventor thinks that he or she can also be a great business person than vice versa.  Business can't be that hard, can it?  The invention is the hard part, right? Most business people that I know don't often mistake themselves to be inventors.  The clear, cold thinking that makes them good at business puts a quick stop to any naive beliefs that they can also excel as inventors.

Inventors need business people to commercialize their ideas.  But without inventors the New New would never happen.  It is a symbiotic relationship.  The business people get most of the money, of course.  But the inventors get something equally valuable to them - the freedom to continue to invent.  And the cycle continues.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Inexorable March Towards the Virtual

Second Life, The Sims, video games: the virtual world seems to be taking an ever-stronger hold in the high-tech world we live in.  Some people seem to feel even more comfortable in the virtual world, where they can craft new and different identities through their self-invented avatars.  But it's not hard to hear the murmured fears about how much time some people spend in these Neverlands rather than being grounded in reality.  The people that inhabit these binary universes are thought to be somehow just a bit whacky.

But these fears of the virtual are not new.  The move from the physical world to a more virtual world has been going on for a very long time.  I was reminded of this as I was reading T.J. Stiles National Book Award-winning biography, The First Tycoon, The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.  In the first decades of the 19th century, the economy consisted of individual proprietors and limited partnerships.  As the first corporations began to be chartered to build canals and railroads, the concept of what constituted a business began to become untethered from the hard and comforting reality of the physical world.  The structure of the corporation not only created a new entity that had a legal life of its own (including legal immortality), the stock issued by the corporation began to move away from an accounting-based recognition of the value of the corporation's real property.  Stocks began to be issued for financial reasons and were now free to seek their value in the open market.  This uncoupling of what used to be considered "real" for something more intangible created great angst in the general public.  Shares that were issued for financial reasons were considered to be "watered stock", an expression that derives from the trick of old drovers who would would let their cattle over-drink just before being weighed to determine their market value.  What did stock represent if not the total capital assets of the corporation?  If it couldn't be taken apart and sold, many felt it wasn't real.  Things like an existing customer base, brand recognition, or know-how were considered to be intangibles and hence of no monetary value.  People like Cornelius Vanderbilt helped to move the country forward into a new era, a more virtual era, through his creation of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad.

The march to the virtual continued during the Civil War when the lack of enough gold in the U.S. Treasury made it impossible to procure all that was needed to fight the war.  The Greenback was issued as legal currency and it set off a wave of negative reaction that went on for decades.  Why should a piece of printed paper be worth something?  It wasn't either gold or silver.  It was just... paper.  We moved another step towards a more virtual world.

When Samuel Morse invented the telegraph, communication took a giant step towards the virtual.  No longer would long-distance communication require either people or a written document moving from place to place to carry information.  Information could now move instantaneously, unfettered by the limitations imposed by geography.  The same sense of uncoupling followed the introduction of the telephone and the phonograph.  Edison was known as The Wizard of Menlo Park, not because of his lightbulb, but because his phonograph took the physical world of sound and somehow encapsulated it so that it could be reproduced at will.

So many of our technologies have a component of abstraction to them; photography, motion pictures, radio, and television all uncoupled the real from the virtual.  With the blooming of the Information Age, we have moved to virtual money through ATMs, cash cards, and PayPal.  We make friends through social networks such as Facebook and MySpace.  We chat through text messaging, tweets, instant messaging, and video calls.  We shop on the internet without giving it a second thought.  We fight our wars using pilots who fly Predator aircraft through virtual links halfway around the planet.  The boundaries blur rapidly.

As surely as there is an Arrow of Time that moves in only one direction, there is also an Arrow of the Virtual which moves ever more away from what we like to call the Real World.  The rate of change often exceeds our capacity to cope.  We feel disoriented and apprehensive as we are pried loose from the old objects of our security.  But what was uncomfortable to one generation is taken for granted in the next.  Our world of 2010 is only a way station on the journey to something that will seem even more disconnected from what we think of as real.  Maybe the comfort in all of this is to realize that it is not only natural, it is inevitable.  People will feel just as comfortable (and uncomfortable) with the world of 2110 as people felt in 1910.   Maybe the secret is to relax and try to enjoy it.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Technology Winners and Losers from the Mid-Term Elections

The people have spoken.  But what the people have said is a little harder to understand.  Imagine a room of ten thousand people who on the count of three are urged to shout out their favorite program for technology funding.  The resulting noise from the diverse answers would be hard to decipher.   The only thing of which we can be certain is that the emphasis will change.  So what are some of the potential winners and losers in the next couple of years?  What government funding is likely to get enhanced or reduced as the centers of political power realign once again in Washington, DC?  Here's a few of my predictions:

The Winners:

  1. Defense and weapons systems.  
  2. Materials technologies that drive the electronics industry
  3. Oil exploration technology
  4. Clean coal
  5. The National Labs (again, with a focus on defense)
  6. Pharmaceutical research
The Losers:

  1. Stem cell research
  2. Alternative energy sources
  3. Climate research
  4. NASA
  5. Energy efficiency
The shifts in emphasis every two to four years play havoc on meaningful progress towards any research goals.  Most of these research programs are based in universities and National Labs.  Proposing and funding a program can take years.  Staffing with faculty and post-docs can take almost as long.  By the time a program gets set up and gains some momentum, it can find itself running out of gas during even the first refunding cycle.  We are constantly sub-optimized to progress as far and as fast as we can.  In a sense, everyone loses from the short-term reordering of research priorities.

Of course, nothing lasts forever, nor should any particular line of research be immune from changes in priorities.  Still, the need to achieve a minimum level of continuity - perhaps a decade - should be factored into setting research objectives.  Our future depends on it.