From Technology to Politics: Leadership Lessons from the Code Conference

This past week, I was able to attend the inaugural Code Conference organized by Walt Mossberg & Kara Swisher.  One of the perks of the conference is, within close quarters, the chance to hear the leaders of huge, successful consumer technology companies.

      • Satya Nadella, Microsoft
      • Sergey Brin, Google
      • Brian Krzanich, Intel
      • Brian Roberts, Comcast
      • Reed Hastings, Netflix
      • Travis Kalanick, Uber
      • Drew Houston, Dropbox
      • Eddie Cue, Apple (iTunes / iCloud)

As I think about lessons from the conference, I find myself focused on a particular insight watching these leaders defend their company’s strategy and focus.  (It’s worth noting that anyone being interviewed by Kara does, in fact, have to be ready to play defense.)

David to Goliath

One of the most complex transitions that every consumer technology company has to make is from David to Goliath.  It’s extremely difficult in part because the timing is somewhat unpredictable.  Is Netflix an upstart versus the cable monolith, or a goliath itself as it is responsible for a third of all internet traffic?  When exactly did Google go from cool startup to a giant that even governments potentially fear?  Apple, of course, went from startup to giant to “beleaguered” and all the way to juggernaut.

Make no mistake, however.  The change in public opinion does happen, and when it does, the exact same behaviors and decisions can be read very differently in the court of public opinion.

Technology to Economics to Politics

Most technology companies begin with language that talks about their technical platform and achievements. “Our new product is 10x faster than anything else on the market,” or “Our new platform can handle 10x the data of existing platforms,” etc.  Sometimes, these technical achievements are reframed around end users: “We help connect over 1 billion people every day,” or “we help share over 10 billion photos a week,” etc.

Quickly, however, the best technology companies tend to shift to economics. “Our new product will let you get twice the sales in half the time,” or “our application will save you time and money.”  As they grow, those economic impacts grow as well.  Markets of billions of dollars are commonplace, and opportunities measured in hundreds of billions of dollars.

Unfortunately, as David moves to Goliath, it seems that many technology leaders miss the subtle shift in the expectations from their leadership.   When you wield market power that can be measured on a national (or international) scale, the challenge shifts from economics to politics.  Consumers want to know what leaders they are “electing” with their time and money, and their questions often shift implicitly to values and rights rather than speed or cost.

What Will the World Be Like Under Your Leadership?

As I watched various leaders answer hard questions about their companies, a clear division took place.  Most focused merely on questions of whether they would succeed or fail.  But a few did a great job elevating the discussion to a view of what the world will be like if they are successful.

There is no question that the leaders who elevated the discussion are finding more success in the market.

Satya Nadella gave no real reason why we would like the world better if Microsoft is successful.  Neither did Brian Krzanich of Intel.

Sergey Brin promises that in a world where Google is successful, we’ll have self-driving cars and fast internet for everyone.  Jet packs & flying cars.  It’s an old pitch, but a good one.

Eddie Cue tells us that Apple cares about making sure there is still great music in the world.  And of course, Apple has spent decades convincing us that when they are successful, we get new shiny, well-designed devices every year.

Is it really surprising that Google & Apple have elevated brands with high consumer value?

Technology Leadership

There is no way around the challenges of power.  As any company grows, it’s power grows, and with that power comes concern and fear around the use of that power.  Google has so much control over information and access to information.  Apple tends to wield tight control over the economics and opportunities within their ecosystem.  However, the leaders at these companies are intelligently making sure that the opportunities they promise the market counter-balance those fears, at least at some level.

Wealthfront, my company, is still small enough that we’re far from being considered anything but a small (but rapidly growing) startup in a space where giants measure their markets in the trillions.  But as I watched these technology leaders at the Code Conference, I realized that someday, if we’re successful, this same challenge will face our company.

If you lead or work for a technology giant, it’s worth asking the question:

Does your message elevate to the point where everyone understands the tangible benefit of living in a world where your company is successful?  If not, I’d argue your likely to face increasing headwinds in your efforts to compete in the consumer market going forward.

4 thoughts on “From Technology to Politics: Leadership Lessons from the Code Conference

  1. Pingback: Links: 6-6-2014 | Aaron Johnson

  2. Pingback: 2017: New Year, New Template, More Posts | Psychohistory

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