Religious Resistance to Technological Change

Over recent times, say the last several years, the technology industry has been extremely disrupted by profound change, to say the least. The shift to mobile from personal computers is only the most visible part of the deep changes behind the scenes. Cloud, Agile, Big Data, Social, the gig economy, the VC activity in Silicon Valley and several others have transformed the way the technology industry operates. Older, more established players have been dragged kicking and screaming into the new world. Newer, more energetic ones have seized the opportunity to become leading players.

To characterise this shift, consider four classes of leading firms:

  • Tech titans of yesterday, like IBM and HP, who are now changing their ways,
  • Established companies, like Apple, Amazon and Google, who drove the change,
  • PC-era firms, like Microsoft and Intel, who followed fast and come out on top,
  • New players, like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, who leveraged the change to win.

Each of these considerable enterprises have very different constituencies: legions of followers, many of whom adopt an almost religious dedication to the products, services and (most importantly) the world-view espoused by these providers. To those of us in the industry, they provide professional ecosystems within which we circulate. To their customers, they provide a set of solutions and a “sticky” relationship that, once adopted is difficult to move away from. Many people associate with one or other “camp” – think “I’m a PC, you’re a Mac”. Fierce loyalties are formed to one or another brand. Evangelists garner followers with almost missionary zeal. Many brands inspire an almost religious dedication amongst their followers.

With the changing fortunes of profound and extreme change, some “win”and some “lose”. Some change and some do not. For the loyalists beset on all sides by an emerging new and very different future, there is a temptation to become reactionary. Some of the more extreme long-time disciples of established tech “religions” equate abandoning their following with some perverse form apostasy. Many of the moderates in established camps recognise, as John Maynard Keynes put it, “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions”. Well, things have changed and many religious technology zealots are feeling threatened.

Some of the behaviours this engenders are very unpleasant. Long-time friends and colleagues can fall-out with each other, sometimes explosively. Once rational and civilised conduct becomes one-eyed devotion; the kind of things you see with sports fans and cultists. Sometimes, these people’s employers demand that they adopt the tools and techniques of the new era. Some of these people refuse. Conflict and consequences ensue, often with rather dire results for the reluctant to change. Sometimes, especially from some of the older, more long-standing followers of one or another camp, it can abruptly end their careers. At the most ridiculous extremes, leading practitioners of yesterday’s world explicitly choose not to change and ride the long-tail of ever-diminishing opportunity into some sort of technological retirement.

These behaviours are not theoretical sociological assertions. They are clear and present to be seen and heard by anyone with eyes and ears. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s experiencing this. After all, Luddite behaviour is nothing new. But this sort of behaviour is particularly ironic from Information Technology professionals who have, for the most part, foisted change on their customers, stockholders, users and many others for a very long time. Some of these people get socially and professionally “unfriended” in the process. Friends don’t talk to each other that way. Most people don’t suffer that kind of behaviour well. The hatred and mindless anger it represents is particularly unnerving to anyone with a more moderate view and less emotionally-charged persona. Sometimes, it leads to the kind of behavioural violence that’s more associated with political extremism than professional conduct.

For the most part, people have adapted to the new order of things. Most people use their mobile devices more than their personal computers. Many people – whether knowingly or not – use Cloud services. Well over half the online community uses social networking. The amount of data generated by all this is staggering. But it hasn’t stopped large enterprises and government agencies using mainframes and mid-range computers to run their operations. It certainly hasn’t eliminated people from using PCs and Macs at work and at home. If anything, Digital initiatives at work have enhanced all those things with new benefits. However, there is a very sharp divide between the Digital world and the traditional world of professional IT. Whilst many IT traditionalists use the new technology, many of them (probably most) don’t really understand it. For their part, many Digital practitioners have a very low opinion of most traditional IT.

So, getting back to the four classes of leading firms: what about IBM and HP (and their ilk)? They are, as the politically-correct vocabulary goes, companies in transition. They all have some sort of Cloud business. They have a “presence” or “partnership” in mobile. To one extent or another they all have “big data” offerings. And, almost unthinkable only a few years ago, many of them have active relationships with social networking firms. Some of them, like IBM, have morphed traditional products, like their newest System Z mainframe, into Cloud products. Others, like HP have decided to hive off big parts of a once-larger firm into separate firms. Imagine being a person who worked at a place like IBM or HP all their working lives. What extraordinary change they must be experiencing now. Some deal with it very well. Many do not. It must be extremely difficult for the latter.

What about Microsoft and Intel? They are fascinating to look at these days. As a former-Softie of more than a decade ago, it’s been a wild ride to observe from the outside as an alum. There are two Microsofts and two Intels. The Cloud business is going gangbusters for both Microsoft and Intel. The mobile business has been a disaster for both of them. Intel more than Microsoft have benefitted from big data. Microsoft has materially benefitted as an early-stage investor in Facebook, but that’s about it. Imagine being a 30-year employee at Microsoft. They’ve experienced the journey from the DOS PC to the present day in one career in one company. For those that have adapted along the way (and I know some of them), what an extraordinary privilege to have been on the journey. But I hear much more about old-Microsofties who haven’t adapted well and are really struggling.

What about Apple and Google? Here is the instructive thing: they are as different from each other as the two of them are from any other enterprise. Steve Jobs remade Apple and did so very well. Larry Page and Sergey Brin (together with Eric Schmidt) made Google and have only recently restructured it into Alphabet. There are people at Apple who have been there 20 and 30 years, and what change they must have seen! Larry and Sergey have been at Google since 1998 (almost 17 years now) and ridden the wave from obscure startup to one of the most powerful and dominant companies in the world. But not many people last very long at Google. Apparently, it’s just too hard. Many leave to go start up other companies. The best and brightest – like Marissa Meyer and Sheryl Sandberg – show up as leaders in other firms like Yahoo and Facebook. But Apple and Google are at the very top of their game at the moment. So there’s an awfully good reason to stay.

Amazon is unique. Much has been written about what it’s like to work at Amazon lately, so I won’t go there. Many of my ex-colleagues from Microsoft work there today, mostly in the AWS division. They are a born-in-the-cloud company whose rise and rise to dominance in the ecommerce and Cloud businesses are legendary. Jeff Bezos is unique. He is rightfully in the pantheon of business giants like Gates, Jobs and only a few others. His senior people are extraordinarily far-sighted and seem to adapt to likely futures before they arrive whilst changing the world at large in so doing. They are famously unconcerned with profit (which itself is almost unique) at the same time as being obsessed by growth (which is much more common). There are only a few who’ve survived 20 years at Amazon. I imagine they are all very tired. There are a few things that have failed at Amazon – like the mobile phone. I imagine those folks are not very happy. But for the most part, however long you last and in whatever part of the company, there have been many wonderful Amazonians – past and present – over the years. They are not change-fatigued. They are not angry (even if the New York Times wants to portray them so). Apparently, it’s difficult to “survive” at Amazon, but I dare say that’s true in many wild successful firms.

Finally, what about Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn? From the little I understand from the inside, all 3 of them are great places to work. But they’re all classic examples of startups that have exceeded the critical mass to remain startups. They all have extremely strong cultures, which is likely to help them all transition to become even more successful larger businesses. Of the three, Facebook is the one to watch. Zuckerberg and Sandberg are forging one of the very few complete new-style companies. They are, first and foremost, a born-in-the-cloud social network. But they are a huge player in mobile and probably the biggest big-data company on earth. Nobody is sure where this will lead. One thing is sure, almost nobody predicted that they’d be where they are by now. So, even for Twitter and LinkedIn, Facebook is the benchmark of the new order of things. They are inherently Digital. They are quintessentially social. They are inextricably Cloud and predominantly mobile. They have data assets of well over a billion users approaching 100 Petabytes.

I feel genuine optimism for the future of technology. I’m hearing very encouraging things that auger well for traditional IT in the PostPC Digital world. I see the religious camps and some of the bad behaviours and feel genuinely sorry for those who can’t or won’t cope. I see and hear all the pain of change from within the established players. I marvel at what the leaders of the new order have achieved to date. I wish them well for their futures because I really think they’ve changed the world for the better. Sometimes, I wish I could help the staunch followers of the religious sects in tech that are going through personally challenging times. I tried to with two long-standing friends and failed dismally. But I don’t think that was any fault on my part. The hardest thing to do is help someone change who doesn’t want to change. Sometimes, it’s just impossible…


About Fred Pugsley

AI & Quantum guy. Foodie, skier, voracious reader.
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2 Responses to Religious Resistance to Technological Change

  1. Liz Stewart says:

    The big brands you talk about have their believers and non-believers just like many religions.

    Having worked and enjoyed startups and riding the wave of a company’s maturity the heart of a company’s success is how they treat their people and evolve with their talented human capital. Maturing cam be very hard on some people as they don’t always realise that they want to get of the change train whilst others are still riding the roller coaster. It is extremely hard for isome ndividuals who have known the highs and lows to keep riding as for some as age and experience provides both foresight and risk adverseness.

    Knowing when to get off the roller coaster is the hardest decision for many. When I reflect on my own history, I have certainly seen some implode because they didn’t read the signs and acknowledge they had done their tour of duty and it was time to hand on the baton. This can only be a reflection of the individual.

    I strongly doubt you failed your mentorees. It can be hard to hear the advice of those who have gone there before you. It is even harder to act on the advice and what you realise later you own gut instincts. You will continue you to be one of my most valued mentors Fred. Many of your words have been included in advice I have given. You have certainly made a big difference for me.

    You and I have spoken about a shared experience and I know without a doubt that together we made it happen. We trusted each other and we delivered. I was the client and you were my trusty supplier. I needed your organisation as I had the unachieveable dilemma ina political hothouse. I was ambitious and extremely lucky to have been apart of our successes. Many thought You and I would fall flat on our faces but we showed them. So many lessons from this experience and such a sense of contributing for a community who had served me well.

    Keep writing and we will keep talking on one of our mamonoth phone calls in which we reflect and solve the problems of today.

    Till next time……

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