CTOs should lead the tech hype cycle, not just follow the buzzword bingo
Blockchain is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it too. — Sergio Pereira (adapted from a Dan Ariely’s original)
In innovation, novelty is a key ingredient. You always capture people’s attention by saying things they never heard, they get intrigued and they listen to you… so you do it over and over again. As a buzzword’s novelty washes out, new ones pop up, and the cycle continues.
The media business lives on the impressions of the ads that go alongside the articles they write, each time one of their articles is opened they earn their dime. As such, they have a strong incentive to take us to their website, no matter what… so they do just that. They tease us with shocking headlines so we click, they use strong words to provoke us so we comment, they say that Elon Musk did this and that so we share in our social channels. The media industry has learned over time that one proven strategy to capture attention is to create buzzwords, and then create a whole suspense scene around them with supporters and haters, and heroes and villains. With all this fanfare, the media drives people’s attention to these buzzwords and hot topics, to a point that even unconsciously we pay attention to them.
They talk about them in events. They say “I’ve invested in three Big Data companies this quarter”. Or “Blockchain is the new Internet, I’ve invested in a few ICOs, just in case”. Might sound ridiculous, but there’s a tangible rational there. Startup valuations and public companies’ share prices alike can increase or decrease value wildly just by the public perception of value that buzzwords create. That’s all what Board Members care about, so they will ask CEOs and CTOs on their companies if they are incorporating the new disruptive technology A or B in order to gain an innovation edge over the competition. Also, when considering new investments and partnerships, they will ask the same questions to diligence the potential. If you’re in Fintech, you’ve certainly gotten asked questions about Blockchain. If you’re in the consumer space, it’s the questions about beautiful mobile experiences and sophisticated Big Data analytics.
The pressure can be overwhelming. CEOs are the hustlers who need to focus on the next thing that will kill their companies. If that thing is lack of funding, they will focus on whatever makes their current and future stakeholders write the next cheque. The hottest buzzwords in tech are typically a winning candidate on those conversations, and the big problem is that CEOs don’t always understand what the adoption of these new technologies entails to their organizations.
They end up requesting the whole tech side of their company to bend in the direction of the new technology, ignoring that it entails major changes in procedures, technology stacks, skill sets and even the mindset of their teams.
Anyone in tech gets pissed by highly urgent but poorly defined work items. This is the common case when anyone receives a request from upward in the organization asking to incorporate some new technology just for the sake of it. CTOs have learned to cope with this over time, and developed some grit to push back, however in the case of highly sexy buzzwords the request comes charged by “higher interests”, in the CEOs perception. The fact that your company’s stock price or valuation will increase significantly just by publicly saying that you are “Implementing a Blockchain”, or “Testing IoT”, or “Creating AI”, makes up for a strong case to build something around it, even if it’s just a crappy product without a faintest prospect of ever making its way to the lives of real users or clients.
CTOs can do better than that, no one likes to do crappy products anyway. Equipped with deep knowledge in the tech realm and the track record of building products in the past, they need to be the ones championing the exploration and adoption of new technologies in their companies. CTOs need to proactively allocate some of their budget to innovation and research of disruptive new technologies. This could not only satisfy the ambitions of the board and the CEO, but most and foremost this could create exciting new opportunities to the company, to their teams and to themselves as a part of an organization that thrives.
CTOs need to be prepared to engage in a productive conversation with their CEOs and board members about these hot topics in tech. The best way to do it is to do some exploratory work early on, and base the conversation on the findings that resulted from that R&D work. Often times these threads of work are difficult to staff, and get procrastinated as a result. As a CTO, you might just have all your A-Players fully booked for the next 12 months, or might not want to distract your teams with learning new stuff to do a Proof of Concept that might never be used again by the company. The best way to staff these projects is by creating totally standalone Agile teams, which have the skill set and the innovation mindset to create a Proof of Concept, measure the feedback, and taking it to market. This can be achieved by hiring internally for these innovation roles, or by just partnering with specialized teams who do just that, such as TechHQ.
This article was originally published here.