At the start of a new year we have an opportunity to be reflective and think about the experience of the past year and how we can spot trends and apply any lessons learned in the new year. At the start of 2008 I am equally reflective on the past year and what it has taught me. A lot has happened in the last year: I completed 75% of my MBA degree, I sold my company Corzen and find myself mired in a new startup, I traveled so much that the government had to give me a new passport, and I attended many weddings and unfortunately a few funerals of friends and loved ones.
While a lot has went on, I find myself looking at the impact of technology on my life and the world in general. In a year where blogs have helped shape the presidential debates and VOIP has made communication so much easier, the world has gotten smaller. Microsoft released new versions of Windows, Office and Visual Studio, and as usual I got to travel the world to explain it to developers. In the past year I got the pleasure to visit many countries and several parts of the United States. As I visit these places, I develop close friendships. I seem to attend more weddings overseas then at home!
Because of technology, the world is smaller. You realize just how small the world is when major news becomes personal. For example minutes after Benazir Bhutto was killed, I received several text messages and emails from my friends and colleagues in Pakistan. A bomb goes off in Hyderabad, India, and Kim Tripp texts me that she is ok since she knows I know she is there.
Why I Love Technology
My career in technology is completely accidentals. I was studying for a PhD in History when I went to Wall Street after I graduated University to earn some money before I went to graduate school. I was in my managers office and he just wrote 20 reviews in a MS Word template and kept hitting “Save” not “Save As..” He asked me to retrieve the documents (but asked me not to read them since they were my and my colleagues annual reviews and bonus. I told him it was impossible since he overwrote them all. He told me to go report to the IT department the next day for a new (and better) job. My knowledge of Save As in DOOM games got me my first technology job!
I love technology because technology is a great disruptive force. It levels the playing field. It creates new business models. It breaks up monopolies. It makes the world smaller. Think of life 20 years ago in the United States. A political leader in another country is killed. What do you do? Turn on TV and get the “official” version of the story at 6pm or 11pm. In 2008 we get instant stories from local sources with videos of the event almost immediately on blogs from folks on the scene. We also have CNN and other networks. What if you want to call your loved ones overseas to see if they are ok? AT&T will charge you $3.55 a minute to connect to Pakistan. In 2008, there is no more AT&T as we knew them and it is free on Skype, or just $0.02 cents a minute on VOIP.
Take the music industry. In the past you had to deal with the big, evil, monopoly RIAA. In 2008, artists are promoting their own music on MySpace and their own web sites and MP3 files are available for $0.99 on iTunes or free if you are willing to break the law, but I still download free music to protest the RIAA. But now Radiohead broke the mold and bypassed the RIAA and record labels and posted their new album on the web and said that you can name your own price to download. How is that for a “strategic inflection point” for an industry?
The list goes on and on. Just try looking for a job today, who uses the newspaper anymore? Or the Yellow Pages? Technology creates a new opportunity for us all.
Do you believe that software can change the world?
I had the pleasure to work on a project in a small way that can greatly help society. Microsoft sponsored a project to be built by InterKnowlogy for The Scripps Research Institute. The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, is one of the largest private, nonprofit biomedical research organizations in the US and a world leader in the structure of biological molecules. Scientists at Scripps Research wanted a better way to organize biological research information and share it with their colleagues. InterKnowlogy developed an application built on .NET 3.0 with WPF, and Windows Vista giving scientists a powerful tool to visualize and annotate research results. This application allowed for faster scientific collaboration, easier access to data and a dynamic development process. (You can read the full case study on Microsoft.com.)
I came across this application about 18 months ago. It used technology to break down barriers in Cancer research. In the past if a doctor was looking at a sample, they would annotate it and then mail it to other doctors who would look at it and mail it to more doctors. This is called “peer review” and is very important, but it takes a ton of time. InterKnowlogy built an app that used SharePoint, Office 2007 and WPF to make this collaboration instant and permanent. The application is speeding up the peer review and collaboration to levels not imagined just a few years ago. It was so impactful that Tim, the owner of InterKnowlogy got to help Steve Ballmer in New York with the Vista launch. I was invited to hang with the big boys since Tim, via technology, is a good friend of mine.
I then suggested to someone at Microsoft that they should help pay for phase II of the application. They liked it so much that they “hired” me (for free!) to recruit a virtual team of four developers overseas to help Tim with Phase II. I put out a call for developers on my blog, nothing else. I got hundreds of responses. Ultimately I referred four developers, one each from: Egypt, Mexico, Poland, and India. Microsoft paid their salaries and Tim gave them tasks to do. They worked on it for six months and came up with an amazing application. We went on .NET Rocks this summer to talk about it.
Later this year I met the Polish developer in Bulgaria at a conference. Tim hired him and now he is working full time at InterKnowlogy. When he met me he told me point blank that I changed his life. I was moved by that and realized the power of technology. Not only did we work together to cure cancer by empowering doctors and researchers, we were helping people in other countries get new jobs that make a difference and more money, all from home.
How Technology Will Change the Future
This is the tip of the iceberg. This is what little old me could accomplish in 2007; I was able to put together a team of developers from three continents and really help cure cancer (the doctor from Scripps will probably get the Nobel Prize) without leaving my house. What can you do?