Rockets, electric cars, motion-sensing interfaces, free math education for all, and a social network that’s closing in on a billion people.
Don’t you wish you could ask the legendary innovators behind these great ideas what it really takes to change the world with technology? We got the opportunity to do just that, and here’s what we learned.
Too often in the tech world, we focus on innovation to the point of ignoring whether or not that innovation affects global change and growth.
Today, we’re bringing you advice from four of the most influential tech teams and entrepreneurs in the world on how they managed to affect real change and how you can apply those lessons to your own life and work.
At a recent Churchill Club ceremony in Silicon Valley, Facebook, Microsoft’s Kinect team, Tesla founder Elon Musk and Salman Khan of the YouTube-based Khan Academy were rewarded for their contributions to society as well as to the tech community. The Churchill Awards recognize companies, individuals and products in technology that are as beneficial as they are cutting-edge.
Throughout the awards, each recipient was asked to speak with an interviewer and the audience about the details of his or her success. Here’s what we gathered from those interviews.
Facebook: Think about people, not computers.
Facebook earned a Game Changer award for indispensable technology and business innovation. The Churchill Club said the spirit of the award was, “You changed how things are, and there’s no looking back.”
Katie Mitic, Facebook’s director of platform marketing, was present to accept, and she was interviewed by Margit Wennmachers of Andreessen Horowitz.
Mitic pointed out the shift from a static Internet of web pages and the current version of the Internet, which seems to be alive and rippling with human interaction. Facebook, she said, “has fundamentally changed how the Internet works for all of us.
“The nodes aren’t computers of machines; they’re people.”
Mitic continued to say that transforming the web from a technical entity to a human and social entity has been the company’s overarching goal. “That transition from the what to the who is bigger than us. We’ve engaged the world in that mission,” she said.
And by focusing on the needs and desires of normal people, Mitic said the company has grown to 750 million users, 70% of whom live outside the United States. “I don’t think any of us really understands what it means to have nearly a billion people connected to other people around the world,” she said.
Kinect: Attract world-changing talent.
Often, we hear (and spout) common wisdom about the “A team” — the top-flight group of geniuses that can turn even a “B product” into a successful company.
But the Microsoft Kinect team, which won the Club’s Magical Team award for collaborative breakthroughs resulting in an irresistible product, said that getting an A team is all about attraction, not promotion. Accepting the award were Microsoft Research’s Mihai Budiu and Todd Holmdahl, the company’s corporate vice president of hardware. The duo was interviewed by Geoffrey Moore, a well-known Silicon Valley author, speaker and adviser.
Moore first noted that the Kinect team was actually made up of seven teams in seven separate disciplines. Holmdahl said that those team members were not actively recruited. Rather, he said, “once people saw what we were trying to do, they started voting with their feet, just coming in to work on it and voluntarily working through the night.”
Budiu was one such volunteer. “I was working on cloud computing at the time,” he said. “And I saw demos [of Kinect] at E3, and I got excited. I said, ‘What can I do to help?'”
Salman Khan: Focus on the money last.
When Moore introduced Khan, winner of the Global Benefactor award for irrepressible vision and positive impact on society, he called the YouTube star “a compulsive tutor-er.”
Khan began tutoring his young relatives via voice conferencing and online drawing apps. As he scaled his now-famous tutoring to YouTube as videos on subjects from third-grade math to advanced history, he recalls naysayers who told him that content couldn’t scale and that he’d never be successful.
“But the more you move forward, you realize that nothing is as intractable as people say it is,” Khan told the audience.
He saw his tutoring not just as a hobby or as a way to make money but as a desperately needed public service. When venture capitalists approached him to apply a freemium model to his tutoring videos or to use the videos as lead generation for test prep services, Khan recoiled.
“If you have a cure for cancer, you shouldn’t be charging the people who are dying of cancer,” he said.
At one point, Khan was living on his savings (which were rapidly dwindling), when benefactor Ann Doerr made a substantial contribution to help Khan pay his bills and continue to make his videos. Next the Gates Foundation called and started making contributions, as well. Eventually, Google kicked in some funding, too.
And not too long after that, the Los Altos School District called on Khan to redesign its curriculum in a revolutionary pilot project.
In a word, if you set out to change the world and you succeed, the money will come.
Elon Musk: Think insanely big.
What kind of lunatic would press forward with creating electric cars after the larger auto industry had already decided the electric car was dead? Or commercial space exploration when the government has basically declared its own space program economically impossible?
Elon Musk, who created PayPal before going on to found commercial space exploration company SpaceX, design the Tesla Roadster and lead SolarCity as its chairman, took the stage to accept the Legendary Leader award for inspirational leadership and contributions to others’ innovation and success. Musk, who appeared to accept the award in spite of battling a vicious flu, was interviewed by Steve Jurvetson of venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson.
Musk revealed that SpaceX is preparing a mission to dock with the International Space Station at the end of December or beginning of January. He said this will be the first commercial space mission to interface with the space station. The company is also building the world’s largest space rocket, which can carry two times the payload of a space shuttle.
“At the beginning, it all sounded completely insane,” Musk told Jurvetson.
“Our competitors were Boeing, Lockheed and the U.S. government. Internationally, there’s the Chinese government, the Russian government, the European collective government… It wasn’t exactly a winning proposition.”
Nevertheless, Musk persevered. Currently, all three of his companies are at 1,500 employees each and “growing quite quickly,” Musk said.
Speaking to the Kinect team’s point, Musk noted, “When you’re trying to attract the world’s best talent, it helps to have a challenge that’s world-changing.” And for Musk, the world-changing challenges he started seeing a decade or so ago were the Internet, clean energy and interplanetary exploration.
Ambitious? Yes. Insane? Probably. But not impossible.