"We need to transcend the traditional corporate structure - reduce the sometimes difficult journey to get collaboration in place." - Jacob LaPorte
I am so pleased today to welcome my longtime friend and friendly rival, Andi Mann. Back when Andi was an analyst at Enterprise Management Associates and I was at 451 Research, I warned him that the industry wasn't big enough for two Australians, a warning that subsequent events proved entirely baseless. Andi went on to be a VP in the office of the CTO at CA Technologies, where he was responsible for product strategy and marketing. From there, he went to a spectacular term at Splunk, ending up as chief technology advocate, essentially the CTO for Dev Ops. Andi, we’re so glad to have you on the show.
Oh, Rachel, it's so good to be here. It's nice to talk with you again.
It's nice to be speaking English to one another, isn't it? It's like...
I know right. I can use all my “u”s when I spell words with you and all sorts of stuff.
We could put the “z”s in “realize”, it's just great.
I think you mean we can put the zed in “realize”, but let’s go on.
Oh my God. I've gone native!
Andi and I of course both hail from Sydney, Australia. He was a cool DJ back in the day while I was just a nerdy little thing. But somehow we both made it to America. Andi, I don't think I've ever asked you, what brought you out here?
Oh Rachel. Whatever brings a man 10,000 miles from his home, it's either a woman or a job or both. In my case, it was actually both.
Look, I actually spent some time in Phoenix, Arizona, doing data center relocation way back in the day when I was doing IT Ops and automation programming. When I dropped into Phoenix, I ended up at a nightclub. I was a DJ, still totally into my music. So the first thing I did as soon as I landed in Phoenix, coming from the backwoods of Sydney, Australia, was drop into a local club. And I met someone and well, what can I say? The rest is history.
We lived in Australia for ten years together, and by that time my career was bumping up against the Asia PAC ceiling if you know and I think you do. Also, my wife was American, obviously. It was a good opportunity for us both. She'd suffered my family already for ten years. It was time for me to suffer hers.
No, we definitely wanted to move into America. Great for my career. I needed to be there. That's the headquarters of IT in the world. And also just for personal and family reasons. It was important for us to live in America. And I'll tell you what, I haven't looked back since.
Not even with the pandemic?
You know, not even with the pandemic. I know Australia's had such a better time of it in a lot of ways. But by the same token, you know, here in the States, I'm super privileged to have been able to ride this out with a great business, with a great job, with a great family and home. Very lucky. Everything brought me to where I am now, and I wouldn't change that.
So glad to hear it. So you ended up a C-level executive in Splunk, which is really a cutting edge enterprise infrastructure company these days, a long way from its origins as log search. So you've worked really closely with some of the biggest customers in the world as everybody scrambles to modernize. People are talking about the pandemic as the great acceleration. What stories can you share with us for the trenches? What are corporations doing these days to digitally transform?
Yeah, I mean, not surprisingly, a lot of it's about remote work and work from home and trying to deal with that kind of transformation. Especially as people are moving around. People aren't even in their homes. You know, people talk about this being the new normal and I reject that to a large degree.
I know people on my team have been doing conference calls for 12 months out of the basement, out of their closet, at the kitchen table. So my staff, we've got bad backs. We had to send ergonomic chairs to their home, these sorts of things. Lots of people are having challenges with this. It's not normal, but we need to manage it. So using data to understand whether are people being effective, are they communicating with others, are they showing signs of burnout and fatigue? Are they, you know, dropping out of calls? Are they taking more days off? These sorts of technology things have been really challenging for a lot of businesses and a lot of customers. I've also seen a lot of great innovation. This has been a great accelerator. The opportunity for technology leaders to adopt new things, do new things in new ways. You know, Bank of Australia, I've been talking about accelerating their delivery of new digital products to their customers.
They've taken on the mantras of agile and DevOps. They're looking at the whole idea to cash life cycle. They're applying analytics. They're doing value stream management to try and pinpoint where they can get more efficient, to try and understand which developers are having challenges with certain code bases. These sorts of things and really being able to do amazing things. Predicting and preventing customer churn on their website by using the sorts of data signals that are coming out of online banking much, much more today rather than going into branches or even going to ATMs and point of sale machines. So being able to understand web traffic.
I'll tell you, it's been fun introducing agile and DevOps to these senior execs like massive US telco doing a Zoom with European banks, with Asian manufacturers, of all things. Explaining software life cycles and waste and flow and continuous delivery and feedback loops. Taking them through online collaboration exercises.
It's funny, when I talk about agile and DevOps and collaboration, or accelerating delivery of new digital capabilities, the light bulbs go off and then the frowns set in like, “Oh goodness, I've got to try and make this happen.” So you're always adapting to work from home to remote work. There's a university down in the US here that is using data around attendance, online attendance, library access, book access, reference content access, the learning management system access, and using that to predict results and interdict students early so that they can get more study time in or go to the library site more or select another course to work on so that they get better results.
So some really cool things are happening there. And even though we're trying to deal with this work from home and remote work life, there's a lot of really great innovation happening. And obviously working at Splunk, it's mostly for me through the lens of data.
I'll give you one one fun example as well from working with the Trek-Segafredo cycling team while I was at Splunk. They were a sponsor of that world tour pro team last year. And so I got to work with their dietician and their team management talked to riders about their own feeling of performance levels, talk with sponsors about what they're looking to get out of brand and brand awareness and use the data that they're getting from their website, from their bikes, from their cars, from their trainers, from their personal health devicers to drive them towards better training, better racing, better recovery. That's been a really cool exercise as well.
Cycling is like Formula One these days. It's just so instrumented and so intense. It's amazing. These people are pushing the limits of what human physiology can do.
It's a data driven sport, you're absolutely spot on.
It's funny, when I first started cycling, well I started cycling as a kid, I stopped when I was like sixteen and nine months because I had a driver's license. I started again when I moved to Colorado because why wouldn't you? And the first question a couple of my friends ask was, “Cycling?” “You'll be getting all the gear for all the data, the computers and everything, won't you?” “Oh, absolutely, I will!”
So that's all of the upside, the positives. Who's struggling? What are some of the negatives, not only in this pandemic, but more generally as corporations struggle to digitize?
I feel like this is a two speed economy. I'm very privileged to be where I am. I work in a knowledge economy. I work from home. I can do my work over the Internet. There's a lot of organizations who are struggling to adapt to this new world, oil and gas, construction, manufacturing, consumer packaged goods. Yet these things are super hard to digitize.
It's super hard to digitize laundry detergent. And let's face it, Amazon tried. We had the easy button and stuff. Part of the ecosystem where you could pre program one button to reorder laundry detergent. Cool button, cool IOT device. I actually helped some of my customers use that as a way to monitor employee happiness. Walk in the door, press a button. Happy, not happy, you know. But these things are hard to turn digital, to do digital transformation.
Recently, I’ve been talking to a large consumer packaged goods manufacturer about how to digitize a toothbrush. This is tricky stuff. There is a startup that's doing digital toothbrushes. And my customer wanted to compete with a digital toothbrush. I try to encourage them to get above that, get above that noise. But it's hard manufacturing, in-person stuff. Even retail, where you've got that investment in bricks and mortar and trying to get over yourself and your sunk costs to do new things in new ways. It has been super challenging for those kinds of in-person businesses.
This is where I find customer discovery to be the very pointy end of all human sided design. If you can just get folks from large corporations out of the building and talking to people who might buy their products, that's the transformative bit for me. Get out, go and find out what people's problems are. Get them to walk a mile in their shoes, do their day journey. What you'll find is that the things you think they care about are at the bottom of their list. And their top three problems are things that you never thought of. But guess what? One of those is something that you can solve and that's what really gets me up in the morning these days.
Because when you and I started out in it, I feel like it was incredibly humane. It was a business that writers and DJs could fall into and make a living in. Then the money came and it became much more complicated and much more abstract. I really loved taking things back and trying to figure out a small piece of value that we can give to another human being that they will pay for and feel like they got a bargain. It feels like a very clarifying lens for me.
Yeah. You know, it's something I've learned from one of my early jobs when I was doing systems programming and systems automation. One of my leaders at that point gave me, what we now refer to as five whys. But essentially it was “dig deeper”. When I was automating work, dig deeper, find the real, I had to use the term root cause, of course, but find the core process you're trying to automate. I'll give you a real example. I had to update X numbers of foreign exchange numbers every night, working for American Express. So I would literally get a fax, I would read the fax, I would type the contents of the fax. So, of course, I call the people who send the fax. They would ask me where I got the form from? I typed it up because I got it from someone else. Keep digging. Keep digging. I ended up going through five different departments to figure out where this data originally came from and just getting a direct feed straight from there into my system to make that happen. So, you know, and you're right, I could do that. It was humane. I could talk to people. It was knowable. You talk about metrics and data and these sorts of things today. So much of it is not humanly knowable. And we've got to abstract it. We've got to use machines to do things at that pace, at scale, at size. I think it's a very different world. In some ways a lot easier, in most ways a lot better, but in some ways more challenging.
I love the Toyota production system, which brought us the five whys and is the wellspring of Lean Startup and all of these ideas because it is profoundly humane. It draws that very clear distinction between problems that a machine can solve, which we should automate, and problems that only a human can solve. So everyone in the production line has the right to pull the brakes and stop the production line because we trust humans to use their discretion and their judgment there. And that, for me, has been a real foundational principle that I take to the innovation work. It's like, if it's repetitive, if it's boring, if a computer can do it, let a computer do it, use humans for what they're really good at, which is nuance and understanding shades of gray and figuring out really complex problems.
Yeah, I mean, computers are great at number crunching, for example. And I've learned this obviously in five or five and a half years at Splunk. The idea of taking the real time big data sets the three V's and trying to deal with that as a human is almost impossible. Back in my day, I'd start to do work on a monolith. It was pretty easy. I knew exactly where the data was coming from. It was one or two feeds. It was a sea slug.
I knew where everything was coming from and it was persistent. What we're dealing with now is really difficult because it's atomized, it's distributed, it's ephemeral and it's not consistent. So in a lot of cases, data is the only constant, it's the only thing we have left over. So being able to understand that you talk about understanding what customers really want. I'm a big fan of going out and talking with customers. I do know one of my friends was a product manager at Sony. He reckons they would sit around in product meetings.
People go, “Oh, we should put this feature on the cassette player.” (A cassette player, hello.” But you must ask, “Would you use that?” “Oh, no, I would never use that feature. But our customers will love it. You're human. Your customers are human. Where's your disconnect?” This idea that we know better or worse than our customers, we need to go and talk to them. We need to understand what they want. Yes, we need to lead them with our technology experience. When we drive innovation, it’s the old Henry Ford line that I don't think he ever actually said. If we ask our customers what they want, they'll say a faster horse and he builds a car.
You know, this is the sort of thinking that I think we need to have. We need to listen. We need to understand their needs. But keep asking why, why, why. What do you need it for? Don't tell me you need a faster horse. Tell me you need to get somewhere faster and I'll build you a better solution than a faster horse.
And I think that's all the way out on the long tail of the Henry Ford customer discovery, because I'll always take a faster horse over a car.
That Sony example is really interesting because they are capable of really ground shaking product design when they want to. The Vaio was a real benchmark for early laptop design. It's hugely influential on things like the think pad and the MacBook Air. Large corporations can still do this when they get out of their own way. It's just that getting out of their own way, that's so challenging.
And I'm a huge Sony fan, by the way. I'm currently staring at you from a Sony monitor. I have Sony throughout my house. And they do innovate. They're amazing innovators and they try things and they're prepared to fail, which is so essential when you think about innovation.
Yeah, it's really hard working with the large corporations where conservatism is baked into the corporate culture because failure is punished. Encouraging people to experiment in that environment is fraught with peril because if they do experiment and the experiment returns a “no” answer, which is a totally valid result from an experiment, they're afraid that it will have negative consequences on their career. And it's such a destructive way to manage and to try and create a flexible organization that's capable of adapting because your very structures become rigid because of the game theory that you play.
Yeah, absolutely. It's something which I was so energized about at Splunk specifically. This tolerance for failure from the CEO all the way down, including my direct leader who was encouraging me to try things out, to experiment. Obviously fail small, fail cheap, fail fast, fail forward. But failure is an option. And at Splunk, it definitely was. It enabled us to try things. And sure, it was not all successful. But that's the point. Some of it was super successful and that's where the payback comes from.
Splunk is, what, 15 years old now? It's still kind of a baby. I think the institutional rigidity sets in. I don't know. I think you're starting to see it at Google. So it's maybe around the 20 year mark. You get the career executives coming in and the punishment of failure. But it's interesting that Google and Facebook have to some extent pushed off that paralysis. And you still see them pushing out a lot of innovation, like columns to data stores for observability Which doubles back to what you were saying earlier about complexity growing up beyond human scale.
Oh, absolutely. And I'll tell you, going back to my early days running, diagnosing, monitoring and resolving problems in mainframe environments, literally five. So I would have two console's. Each console had four screens on them trying to correlate log data by timestamp manually. When the three founders of Splunk walked into my office in Colorado back when I was an analyst at EMA. That never happened because no one ever came to visit us in person. We always had teleconference calls for briefings. As soon as they explained it, I was like, oh my goodness, where were you all my life while I was doing ops? And I never lost that belief, that passion and what they were doing. So from logs, into metrics, into observability and that real sampling.
I was reading today, and some people talked about how they missed a problem because they trusted the averages. And we used to have to do that because as human beings, we can't deal with the volume of data coming out of modern applications. So the observability puts that ability to understand what's really happening. And like you say, down to an individual human level, I can understand from an individual customer whether what they're experiencing right now on this transaction is good or bad. And I can understand that as an exception to what is normal in my environment so I can react to it. So just for one customer getting a poor experience, I can go back and change something and make it better. And if I can continue to do that and do it with automation, do it with data, with analytics, then all of a sudden, as you say, as a human, I can go back to thinking up new ideas. I can go back to making those leaps of faith that machines don't do. I can use my collaboration ability. I can brainstorm with other human brains to come up with new ideas that a machine would never come up with. And I can only do that because I've got the time, because I'm not monitoring a million data points a second.
That's it exactly. Using silicon to augment our organic intelligence. That's the best case scenario.
Andi, when you look back on your work in innovation, what are you proudest of?
Oh, that's an interesting one, isn't it? Look, I think the easy answer for me is all the products and solutions I've brought to market. How much they've helped my customers achieve things and fix problems. You know, a process, automation, digital content delivery, virtual system management, cloud automation, value stream management, dev ops analytics, AI ops. I've brought new products to market in all these areas. I've had a lot of professional success. I had a huge amount of help, by the way. No one does innovation alone. It's definitely a team sport. But understanding the needs, delivering solutions. I've made a lot of money for a lot of people along the way. But you know, Rachel, in a personal sense, I've thought about this a fair bit for me. It's actually my second book, it’s actually what really gets me energized and what really makes me proud. You know, it's not just the book itself. It's all the work that went into it and all the interest that came out of it. And the great team that I worked with putting it together. Yeah, this was in the early days. This is my Innovative CIO book. This is in the early days of cloud computing when I was back at CA Technologies. Consumerization, mobile, IOT, smart devices were all sort of hot, and I got to work with innovators like Richard Branson, Jennifer Hyman of the Rent the Runway, and Robert Scoble. Who for better or worse, has gone through some troubles.
I was hosting roundtables, one on ones with top C-level innovators from Tesco, Starbucks, Comcast, Virgin, Westpac, Acom Bank, Netflix, American Express, Coca-Cola, Nike, Vail Resorts. These people taught me so much. It's like I got a second MBA of innovation writing this book. I learned so much. I tried so hard to share as much as I could. It was such an energizing time in tech, such an innovative time for me and for my business and for technology in general, and being able to document that and share my learning. I'm irrepressibly proud of that effort, even though I was just one part of a big team that made it happen.
It was a great book. Have you thought of writing a follow up?
You know, I actually have. I'm taking some time right now to think about my next book. People say, obviously, I've never had a child. People say writing a book is a little bit like having a child in that you forget the pain that went into it. And after you've done it a while later, you forget and think, oh, my goodness, I just want to do that again. Now, I can't really comment, of course, but the pain of writing a book and it's real, everyone I know who's written a book will go, “Oh man I never want to do that again.” But you know what? I do want to do that again. I've got some ideas I'm working on right now.
Send me the galleys.
If you had one do over, a mulligan, you get to replay one bit of your career. What would you do differently?
Yeah, this is actually a very easy answer. This is going to take me back to early dot com days, pre pre dot com, really, early 90s. This is almost halt and catch fire territory. I had what I think well, what I know, would have been a game changing, life changing dotcom business idea. I'm not going to talk too much about exactly what it was. I was young, late 20s, early 30s. I was mobile. I had a support system behind me. As I said, “I'm very privileged. I have a very lucky existence.” I was time rich so I could devote myself to a new idea, literally a billion dollar idea. Ask me how I know, sometime. I listened to the wrong advisors, or at least, I made my own decisions poorly after listening to trusted advisers. I decided not to do this business. I thought they were insurmountable problems. You know what? There weren't. Sure, there were challenges that were not insurmountable. I learned a lot from there. I thought about that a lot. I could be in a very different position right now. But I learned so much about what it means to have ideas and push them. In my book, I actually write that innovation without execution is just hallucination.
Having an idea is easy. Getting it done is hard, understanding how to get it done even harder. I learned so much from that, to stand up for my own ideas. Again, part of that sort of five whys conversation. Keep digging. Keep going. Don't just listen to someone who says you can't. Dig in and find out why. Why can't you. Be a three year old. You know, ask why. Why what? No, you can't do that. Why? Well, it's not going to work with this regulation. Why? Well you can't change the regulation. Why? You can get to the point where maybe you can say, “yes”. Do market testing. Brainstorm with people. Seek out advice from the people you trust and learn from. But you know what? Now when I believe in an idea, I back myself. And that's a very strong learning from that one particular instance, which I do, I wouldn't say regret. Everything that I have done has brought me to where I am and I'm super lucky to be where I am now. But I would look at that as maybe an opportunity to have done something differently.
Definitely a sliding doors moment. Two universes. You're so right. I love that quote about ideas without execution being hallucinations. A lot of the corporations I work with, they're very paranoid about intellectual property. They're like, “If we show somebody our idea, what if they steal it?” And it's like 93 other people have already had this idea, 47 are working on it’s implementation. You're going to have to compete on execution. No one's going to steal your idea. And if they do, you just have to implement it better. It's like speaking a foreign language to a lot of these very IP conscious corporations. But there's an exact parallel with writing. Everyone thinks they've got a book in them and they're like, “I'll tell you my idea if you write the book.” And it's like, that sounds like a really bad deal for me.
Oh, absolutely. I can't imagine.
Stealing an idea is like stealing a puppy. Then you have to take care of it.
Yes. Yes. Signs in coffee shops saying “A loose three year old running around will be given a free espresso.” Free espresso, great, who doesn't love that? But not for my three year old.
So, Andi, I've aired a lot of my opinions on this, but what do you think makes corporate innovation difficult?
Oh, look, I've seen this, I've diagnosed this in so many ways and there's so many things that can go wrong. Innovation is tough. Let's agree. As you said, ideas are easy, execution is hard. I've always said technology is easy. People are hard. That's where I would lay the biggest challenge in terms of corporate innovation, especially. It's a people thing and it's mostly about inertia,
Inertia is, “That's not going to help my career.” Inertia means “That won't fit our systems.” Inertia is that “We can't cannibalize our own market.” These sorts of things. If you're unsuccessful with something, if you're not doing very well, pivoting is logical and easy. You're not leaving anything behind. You're not leaving any people behind, any knowledge behind, any revenue behind. Let's be clear, when we talk about legacy technologies, for example, and we talk about big companies, they're big. The legacy they endure because they're successful, they do well because people want what they do.
So they literally can't and should not throw the cash cow out. We all know that from our MBAs. We got to keep sustaining development. But you've got to look at these horizon to horizon three opportunities and balance that. So looking at different strategies for balancing your inertia that's preventing you from doing new things in new ways because people are building empires, maybe they're legitimately managing the cash cow investments and legitimately dealing with the sunk costs and trying to maximize investment value there. You also need to look and allocate time and resources to do new things in new ways. Getting over that inertia in a large enterprise, in a big corporation environment, is super difficult.
In my book, I talk about startup accelerators like yours, right? I mean, these are great ways to get out of your own head when you're in a large corporate environment with internal startup programs. We did this at CA Technologies with one of my co-authors on that innovative CIO book. Having internal startups, pitching ideas, doing pitch days, pitch decks, giving them seed funding, hiring internally for them, for their lead developers, doing prototyping, and putting gates in place that operate as an internal external startup is another way to get over yourself when it comes to enterprise and corporate innovation.
I absolutely think it's super hard to just go, “You know what? Time to do some innovation now,” That doesn't really work. Having external support and externalizing the innovation process and insulating it from the inertia of your core business, in some way, whether it's working with an accelerator, doing an internal sort of a startup program, whether it's managed internally, managed externally, doing a full on external funding. So a lot of big companies these days are actually starting up venture capital arms, or have done for a long time.
Splunk recently did that. CA certainly did that. It's been going on for a while. These are ways you can do innovations at large corporate environments. But it's really hard because of that inertia, that vested interest in the status quo and frankly, in that respect, a lack of desire for new things. Some techniques to get over that. But I really believe it's really inertia that just holds people back from doing those new things in new ways.
Yeah, and the internal accelerators attract these participants who just adore programming. They love it. They find it a tonic. They start to work incredibly well. They pull together customer discovery. They synthesize it. They let it inform their product plans. Then you have the whole challenge of reintegration and you write that it's about risk. It's about the completely different risk equation that corporate executives have to make versus venture capitalists. Venture capitalists can tolerate a huge amount of failure for that one outlier success. Corporate executives, not so much. As much as I love doing the internal startup programs, there is that pitch to the investor. And there's only one investor. There aren't a thousand folks at the YC demo day. There's just one guy. You have to win that person over. And the barrier for persuasion is much, much higher. Appropriately so. But it does make decision day much harder than Demo Day.
Yeah, there's no doubt about that. Interestingly enough, when we did this at CA Technologies, having a backstop of a large corporation can actually outbid external VCs and stuff like that for good ideas too. Because it's not about people not wanting to innovate in business. Not despite what I said about sometimes people just don't want new things. Typically that's from a more senior level. The people who’re programming, coming up with the ideas mostly, by the way, won't be the senior executive, the CEOs, the CTOs. In my experience, at least, that will be that individual contributor, but they don't necessarily want or are able to go out and just start up their own company and get that VC funding and stuff. But having the CTO within a business like CA Technologies come around and say, “Hey, look, I can fund you, you can work externally, you can keep your health care, you can keep your 401k. You can keep your four weeks of vacation a year but act like a startup.” Some problems there mentally acting like a startup when you don't have all those hard financial pressures, but also some leeway there to do different things. It's an interesting opportunity to look at that internal funding route. Not always successful. Absolutely right. Not the same pressures, not the same decision makers. Sometimes in those sorts of environments, you're still up against an ExCo committee, who is never going to approve anything you've got because it's too risky. But if you're doing it right, then it's much more like that VC kind of experience.
Well, this is where I think the F.A.N.G. companies in particular Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google, have really sort of walked a tightrope. They've managed to maintain this startup momentum internally. They've done it by engineering, comp and performance reviews. They give you a really healthy base salary. But then the bonuses, the RSUs, the discretionary performance incentives come when you do something that's deemed to have meaningful impact on the bottom line. There's still this sense of that lottery of those cash windfalls available to the engineers who take the risks and who swing for the fences. I don't know what the sporting metaphors are, but they've managed to be these large companies that have stayed much more innovative than predecessors like Sun or SGI managed to do because they've thought really hard about what motivates engineers and how to structure incentives so that engineers can take those big breathtaking moonshots.
I think that you've hit on something really strongly there Rachel. The idea of motivating people to take risks. I think risk doesn't come naturally to humans as a rule. We've learned since cave times that risk can get us eaten by a grue. But I think as leaders, as innovation leaders, to be able to instill in your people the opportunity to innovate, to try things, to fail and still be successful, if I can put it that way. Going back to the F.A.N.G. companies.
Oh, by the way, if I'd go back to my one regret, I might actually rephrase that as flubbing on an acronym. The acronym I flubbed on was STEM and it was on stage with Richard Branson. It's on video for all time now. But anyway.
I was there. I was in the audience. I blocked it out.
I said science, technology, education and math. Branson was so, so generous. He corrected me without correcting me. He restated my question, but used the right words in the acronym. I think about going back to Google and things like the original Google time. Right. Twenty percent of the week, being able to do experimentation. Things like Google especially, but also other F.A.N.G. companies never going fully with someone, never setting an expectation that this is a perfect product. Yes, we're trying things out continually getting with beta and letting beta versions be out there for literally years sets an expectation that, you know what, we're still trying stuff out. Experimentation is okay. This might still fail, and that's okay. Being able to engender and encourage innovation within individual contributors is probably one of the hardest things that an innovation leader can do.
I think that's totally true. And I think it would be irresponsible of us to talk about Google this much without acknowledging that they fired most of their ethical AI team over the last few months. There are unsayables in the Fang companies and it's typically criticism of the company's core business model. That's the shibboleth. That's the thing you're not allowed to question because the whole structure comes tumbling down. Of course, the consequence of that is that that is unfairly felt by folks who don't match the traditional Silicon Valley stereotype. So you see people of color and women bearing the brunt of these social exclusion mechanisms because they do bring an outside perspective, which is not always welcome when that outside perspective is critical of the fundamental engine of profitability.
As someone who has never lived in the valley. I moved to the US seventeen odd years ago. I lived in Connecticut, Florida. I'm now in Boulder, Colorado.
So you don't have the taint.
Where Boulder has its own challenges in terms of its perceptions of reality. But it's certainly true that when you look at some of Silicon Valley and what technology, ecosystem and industry in general. There's some toxic elements to it which we really need to be aware of and be cognizant about. We can't just assume technology exists in a vacuum outside of human bias. And we tend to think about these things in terms of AI and ML and automation and so forth. It's just doing what we told it to. It's just doing the job right. But we tell computers to do specific things. Back to the idea of the separation between humans and computers.
Humans are able to give computers instructions, but computers have no judgment. A filmmaker friend of mine for many years from Australia in his first film, has a line in it, “Machine has no agenda.” And this is from 20 plus years ago. I still think about that line, “Machine has no agenda.” Sure. But what are you telling it to think about? What are you telling it to work on? What are you emitting from your instructions? Your humans have bias, obviously, and humans and computers process different data, but humans absolutely introduce challenges into technology. Businesses need to be more up front about how they use data, how they deal with people, how they deal with political issues, openness, working with diversity, inclusion, equity for people in their business, customers as well. This is something which technology is yet to truly face up to, I think.
And I think it's on those of us who, like you and I, have had very privileged runs through and a lot of luck. I think it's on us to make space for people to bring their ethics to work and to question the premises of everything that we're doing. I think a lot of the trends that you correctly noted coming out of the Great Acceleration as a consequence of the pandemic lend themselves to surveillance and to exploiting workers in new and horrible ways. I think it's really incumbent on those of us who've seen all of this play out over the last 20, 30 years to to fight that and to fight for meaningful work for everybody who wants to do it and a decent life for everyone who, for whatever reason, can't work.
Andi, how would you distill your experience into one or two lessons for our listeners?
Oh, wow. Take one step. Fall face down, get up, try again.
Look, how do I describe my own journey? For me it's always been about learning, experimenting, learning and adapting. I'm infinitely inquisitive. I always have been. I love to create, to tinker, to play, to learn that way. I'm not a great book learner. I'm a really good hands-on learner. Most people are by the way. But humans are very good at experiential learning, generally much worse at book learning. So try things out, do it, play hands on. So experiment. I think one thing that's flowed through my entire experience is never accepting the status quo. Even as a young child, questioning everything, you know, back to the five whys. It's not just a troubleshooting technique, it's a brainstorming technique. It's an innovation technique and acquisition technique. Understanding what is now and understanding. It doesn't have to be that way. The status quo.
Good enough is never good enough. We've always done it this way is never an excuse. So trying to do new things in new ways, never settling for how we've always done around here, always asking the question, but why do you do it this way? Could you do it better? I firmly believe that most innovation is incremental, not revolutionary, and that incremental innovation comes from looking at what already exists and asking, can I do that better? They say there's no better mousetrap. I reject that entirely. There's always a better mousetrap. We just don't know what it is. I love art. So you look at people like Mondrian. Squares and lines, “Well, I could have done that. Yeah, but you didn't, did you? Coming up with new ideas is hard. Innovating on existing ideas is also hard but a little easier. So you're trying that new thing, never accepting the status quo. And honestly, Rachel, in my latter days, especially teaching and sharing what I've learned. Sharing the ideas I've had, making human connections around those learnings. I found this, as I said, more in my more mature days than my young days that that sharing and collaboration pays back in spades.
It's really the unsung delight of middle age that you have enough experience that you can share it, you can share all of your scar tissue. That lends it a meaning that it doesn't have when it's just your own personal random walk towards having enough money to eat food. When you're actually able to share those insights and that history with people who are just coming up in the industry. It's really a delight. I think we have a lot of historical egocentricity about this moment in history. We think there's never been so much change. There's never been so much development. Our ancestors literally walked from Africa to Peru and started inventing cities and agriculture. I think we stand on the shoulders of incredibly adventurous and curious ancestors. And it's when we connect to that curiosity and that spirit of exploration that we are at our most human.
Yeah, look, I agree. I do think it is human nature to be inquisitive. I think humans don't love change. Change is difficult. We look for constancy to a great degree, but humans are naturally inquisitive. So if you can take that desire to learn, that desire for inquisition, that desire to improve and continually iterate on that. The idea of continuous improvement, continuous learning, continuous everything. I think that you can come up with some astounding things. But again, it's about going far together. Maybe a proverb, maybe not, “To go fast, go alone. To go far, go together.” I don't know if that's a real proverb from any particular culture. I suspect not, but I love what it means.
We all want to find our little ragtag band of misfits. And that's the core of the start up journey. And it's also the core of what corporate innovators do. You've got to find the others. You've got to find the others like you and then figure out how you'll get over the next hill together.
We're all just on a journey to dispose of the one true ring
Young man throws jewelry into a volcano.
Oh, I love movie plots described that way.
How do you think the pandemic might affect corporations in the longer term?
It’s an interesting one. I thought about this a lot. I actually have been thinking about these ideas for a long time. The idea of what is a city, why do people work? And it comes literally out of living in Colorado and driving around the place. I'll drive up to a ski resort and I'll see people living in these huge log cabins, and the log cabin’s like two stories, thirty five hundred square feet in the middle of nowhere, out in the middle of a plane up in Kremmling or something. This beautiful big house.
I think, What do you do that lets you live there?” I think about these ideas of what makes a city? Why do we go to a city? I think the pandemic is accelerated, that thinking and it certainly has within the business I've been at. A lot of my customers. The idea of work from anywhere, work from home, moved back to where your support network is. You don't have to be in the city of San Francisco now because we're not meeting in person anyway. I really think this idea of “What is a city?” is going to fundamentally change for most organizations. And what does it mean for humans to live in a location of a physical space?
As I said before, there's a lot of industries where remote work and remote consumption is not even possible. I can buy laundry detergent remotely, but sometimes it's got to be delivered to me. It's got to get there somehow, notwithstanding drones and so forth. So the ideas of work from home, managing that work from home experience in a positive way as well. I think Splunk was very good at managing that experience for employees, giving people time off to take care of family, to take care of schooling. All of a sudden I'm working and schooling. Well I'm not, a lot of people are dealing with this. So flexibility of work, engagement through digital techniques, change in management style. Thank goodness for the death of taylorism. It's coming if it's not already here, collaboration, communication, enablement, empowerment, trusting humans to be grown ups in their job. You mentioned before the opportunity for work from home to devolve into a surveillance operation. I see that with some organizations. Fortunately, none of my customers, but people installing your key loggers and stuff like that, attention monitors to see if you're actually looking at your camera. These are coming out of old techniques from proctoring exams and so forth. We're now being asked to essentially sit in exams every single day as a call center operator.
Are you kidding me? We're grown ups. This isn't happening universally. But I do see a lot of more progressive leaders understanding that empowering smart people and getting out of their way lets them drive innovation. If you give them the tools, the guidelines. We've talked in the past about providing barriers, not roadblocks. Give people guidance, give people barriers that they can't bounce off the side of the road and let them go down the road as fast as they can until they need your help.
So I think work from home, remote work, just COVID and the personal mental health and physical health issues that it has raised has caused a lot of businesses to rethink. How do I deal with my people internally? How do I connect with my customers externally? How do I manage and make those relationships positive for them and for my business? I think that will translate into a lot more digitalization, a lot more online engagement, a lot more analytics, a lot more ethics and morality built into some of our software tooling as well. I think almost all positive, but I also know that this will hit some people negatively. That's what I see right now. I'm excited about some of it. I'm scared about some of it.
I agree on all points. I would just throw out that a city can also be a ragtag band of misfits. It's what people both love and hate about San Francisco. So you see the exodus of folks from San Francisco now who are like repelled by the homeless problem on the streets and the high rents. But you also see people like me putting down roots and staying in San Francisco because it's been a tech city for 30 years, but it's been, you know, a beacon of human rights and tolerance and diversity and ecological innovation for far longer than that. Those qualities that make it a queer capital and a labor rights capital and a farmer's market capital and the place where the whole earth electronic link and the Whole Earth Catalog happened, all of that is still here and is still important to people who sort of self-identified as that kind of San Franciscan. I know we’re insufferable, just like people from Park Slope and Boulder.
Oh, I read that article that blew up in Boulder, let me tell you.
Oh, that was so funny. We are, of course, Park Slope’s spiritual twin. But it is meaningful and it does matter that kind of work, that kind of ethical and societal and cultural work. You need to have a San Francisco so that you can have other places on the spectrum as well, that it opens up spaces of possibility.
Yeah, and look, I agree and also disagree. I absolutely agree that the death of San Francisco is vastly over-predicted, to misquote Twain just briefly. “We overestimate the future and underestimate the near future.” sort of thing. I think everyone's overestimating the impact of the pandemic on cities like San Francisco, New York, Berlin, London and the exodus that's happening and so forth. I absolutely agree, though, that these predictions are overly dire, that San Francisco will continue to be because it is fundamentally built on that innovation culture, that collaboration, that openness to new ideas. I would also point out, though, that there are innovation hubs throughout the country doing some really cool stuff. You look at Des Moines, Iowa, Kansas City, I would nominate Boulder, Colorado, the Silicon Mountains, don't forget, over the other side in Utah as well, know Provo and so forth.
Atlanta is just like a wellspring of incredible stuff at the moment. Austin, of course.
Austin, Texas. Absolutely right. I think San Francisco will bounce back. They all will bounce back and maybe in different ways. And that's a good thing. But I also think that other areas are going to be able to take the opportunity to attract talent that will help them become greater innovators. I don't know that they'll ever reach that zenith that San Francisco and Silicon Valley have. But I think there's an enormous opportunity. You know, just companies here in Boulder and people like Erro, you look at Gnip, you look at the Webroot, a whole bunch of businesses, not to mention VictorOps, Rally Software that I've been involved with personally, coming up with amazing technologies and solutions well removed from that Silicon Valley bubble in our own bubble. Of course, but in a different way. So I think the pandemic will give people the understanding that they don't need to always be in that location. You can be in other places. You can innovate anywhere. But I agree. Ultimately, it's about the people, the culture, the environment. It's not just the physical buildings, certainly not, but the atmosphere of people coming together to collaborate and build and do new things. And that excitement that does take personal interaction.
I think we can all agree that, whether there's a great research university, there should also be a thriving startup hub. I think cities like San Francisco are better when people live here because they want to and not because they think they have to.
Yeah, that's very true. One of the attractive points of Boulder is to get away from expensive real estate in California and trade up to Colorado. I will continue to push that line because I love to see people come to Colorado. The more businesses that come here, the easier it is for me, the less travel I have to do, which is all good. But yeah, I think you're absolutely right, that ability to work together, it just makes such a difference.
And to that point about travel, how do you avoid burnout? I, like you, used to spend half the year on the road and I have not missed it at all. I have been working from home for an entire year and my crops are flourishing and my skin has cleared up. If I never get on another plane, it will be too soon.
Look, I started out that way, but I've always just loved to travel. I remember I had a revelation when I was about nine years old and I looked out from the balcony of my house at the bus stop. And it occurred to me at that point, I don't know why it occurred to me, you know, I can walk to that bus stop. That bus stop will go to the train station. The train can go to the city and they get another bus, I can go to an airport and then I'd go anywhere in the world. That bus stop is everywhere in the world. I love travel and I always have. And so for me, it was initially great because the drag was gone. And if I never spend another time in an airport or a hotel or a conference room, I'm good. But man, I want to go and travel and meet with people and see them and talk with them and hang out with them, get the ideas, these sorts of things.
I do miss travel and yet I don't. But you're right. It's so easy to burnout on these things. It's really critical to make time for self care. Talk about travel. We've all heard the line. “Put your own mask on first before assisting others.” You know, if you're breaking down physically or mentally, you cannot be there to help other people.
You've got to help yourself first. No one can help you as much as you can help you either. So for me, I take time. I make time. I make time for my family. I make time for friends. Not nearly as much as I should. I make time for my own headspace, cycling, skiing. I take time for meditative activity. So for me, cycling is amongst that. Cooking is like that for me. I love to cook and it's very sort of meditative.
Again, I'm privileged to be able to cook for fun, not just for necessity. I do believe you have to own your own self. It's a phrase they use in the rafting tours here in Colorado. You are responsible for your own self rescue. Yes, there's someone on the bank. If you fall out of your raft, there's someone on the bank with a life raft, and another one on the other bank with a rope. There's someone in the raft who will pull you up if you get close. But ultimately, you've got to get to either bank or the raft. You are responsible for your own self rescue. I think by the same token, though, you've got to extend your support system. You've got to open up to people, rely on people, be human to people.
We all try to put up these barriers, these people in various cultures, your second face or third face to try and pretend it's all right. The standard response to anyone in the office asking, “How are you?” is, “I'm fine.” And no one is actually asking how you are. So these barriers that people put up behind themselves - make human connection very difficult. That makes travel a very lonely and mentally taxing experience. I think trusting people, opening up again to go far, go together, understand you can't do everything, draw lines and be OK with that. Understand your role in the system. This is the idea of systems thinking that we've been working with in Agile and DevOps for some time. Be comfortable that when you make your best contribution to the system, if the system fails, it's not your failure. You can't control what other people do. You can't control the whole system. So sometimes you have to just be comfortable doing your own best contribution. I’ll finally wrap up on that by saying personally, my own experience is to fail at all of this, need to take time off, go through some basic difficult stuff, then realize I've got to pay attention to this and actually do it.
That was such a wise and thoughtful answer that even as you were saying that I was thinking, yeah, he arrived at all of this insight by ignoring all of that. It's such a hard balance to strike. You need to have agency. You need to be able to choose to travel and to be able to say no when you don't need to. But you also need to be in the community. You need to have a humane manager. You need to have humane direct reports and humane relationships with your customers in order to exercise that choice. The systems that we're in, when they push us towards coercion, the burnout is built into that mechanism. If we build new systems where people can say what is right for them, then self care can be front loaded instead of being remedial at the end of somebody's emotional crash.
I'll tell you, it's hard to repay that mental debt. You talk about getting ahead of it and I think that's so important. But it gets ahead of you. It's so hard to catch up. It's like sleeping, right? For some reason, if I sleep for four hours a night, then I'm tired and I'm constantly tired. But if I sleep for eight hours, it's not like I'm catching up on all those four hour gaps. Right? I've still suffered because of those. If you suffer because of burnout, because of lag, mental lag, you're all of these problems. It's so hard to catch up on that. You can't keep deferring self care. You've got to pay attention to it. You've got to do it regularly. Otherwise it just takes over.
I firmly believe that bad burnout is like concussion. It makes you much more vulnerable to future burnout.
That's a great analogy. So true.
So as managers, I think it's really incumbent on us to model good behaviors to our direct reports and to encourage them to do the proactive self care that prevents them getting concussion.
I've actually taken some of my team off email for a week at a time because they wouldn't stop checking in on email while they're on vacation. I want to be very clear that I treat my team like adults. If they want to work while they're on vacation, that's their decision. I've had very senior people who are able to make those decisions for themselves, for the most part, but every now and then someone comes along and especially true of what we talked about that Silicon Valley culture, the startup culture, the the work hard, play hard, which can often be code for toxic work environment. The idea is that you sleep under your desk because you're in crunch time. We all accept that this is normal and okay. I don't. I do not accept this is normal and okay. Sometimes you gotta work hard, you gotta work long. That's fine. But we also have to understand that if you take a break, your job will be here when you get back. I'm not going to undermine you. I'm not going to give your work to someone else to complete and get the credit or whatever it is that's causing people to not take the time for themselves to recharge. When my people take vacation, I want them to come back energized, excited, not just back on Monday.
And again, this is an issue that disproportionately affects underrepresented minorities who typically send remittances to their families or supporting younger siblings when they burnout. You know, the risks facing them are substantially higher than the risks facing people from privileged backgrounds who can take six months off and be confident that they'll find another job. So this is one of the ways in which we fail underrepresented minorities in the tech industry is by not having systems to put those safeguards around them. That's why it's not a pipeline problem, it's a potential problem. We literally drive people away by not building a social safety net, a set of guardrails around their experience.
Yeah, look, I love that line. It was my favorite Splunk T-shirt. Splunk, obviously very famous for its ironic white on black T-shirts. Its original one was taking the S H out of IT, you know, these sort of ironic and good fun T-shirts. One of them was actually from our Women in Technology Group. And I always thought that it should be from our men in technology group because it was not a pipeline problem using the pipe symbol, of course, because we're nerdy people.
And it occurs to me, you know what, I love that T-shirt for multiple reasons. A) the fabric was softer because it was a sexist issue and it didn't use the beefy Hanes. It used a nice soft cloth material for the women's issue. I don't know. I like soft T-shirts too. But the big thing was it made it clear to me that it was a me problem. Right. I'm a senior male, middle class white manager in Silicon Valley. The reason we're not filling our pipeline with people of color, with minorities, with women is because of people like me looking for people like me, when I'm hiring. I go to my network in LinkedIn. It all looks like me. If I put a job ad out there in my network, all the responses look and sound like me.
It's a me problem. I need to make the effort to go look for other people. I need to expand my network to look for other people. I need to give people opportunities without putting those constructs of bias, employment time, education attainment, project of revenues, things like this contiguous work experience. These are some of the judgments that we put on candidates when we interview that have absolutely nothing to do with whether they can actually do the job and they introduce and perpetuate so much of this bias. It was one really cool thing at Splunk that they had specific programs and capabilities to anonymize resumes, to standardize interview questions and to do numerical rankings. I'm not going to say we took all bias out. I'm a postmodernist. I absolutely believe it's almost impossible for humans to reject their bias. But if we acknowledge it and work hard to move around it and negate it, then at least we get closer. But I absolutely agree. It's a toxic problem that Silicon Valley has and it hurts our ability to innovate because we're restricting the amount of ideas that are in those ideation sessions. We're not hearing from all the population. We're not hearing the new ideas that some people, who we’re excluding, would have and bring to us to make us more inclusive.
And we end up with proctoring software that doesn't register dark faces.
Or camera software that tells you you need to retake the camera because some Asian people had their eyes closed and stuff like this. The built in biases that we create, a significant issue that I'm very concerned about and want to try and do better. I think as an industry, we should try and do better.
Back to the ragtag band of misfits. It's not about eliminating bias, it's just about expanding your idea of who your particular band of misfits might be. One of the most practical suggestions that I heard about ten years ago that really changed how I think about all of these things is just diversify your social media feeds. You know, follow 10 black women engineers on Twitter. It will change the way you look at everything. It's incredible.
Yeah, and I've done that myself. You know, I'm not going to say any kind of shining example for anyone, but I've looked at my social media failure, LinkedIn, slightly different for me. It's about who I've met in person. So it reflects my world rather than predicates my world, but with Twitter, it's an opportunity for me to hear more voices, and so I do, I hear a lot of voices, sometimes it's challenging. It's personally confronting. That's OK. That's a good thing. It's all about learning, understanding your experiences. That's a really good tip, Rachel, to diversify your feed. The feed can be such a toxic echo chamber, especially for someone like me who is already in multiple echo chambers. It just reinforces and reinforces. You've got to make a conscious effort to break the algorithms and get new content into that feed. That's a really important idea Rachel. So I really like the way you say that.
But if you do, you find yourself following crop scientists and shepherds and people who are regenerating their hillside in Cumbria that their families lived on for four hundred years and botanists in the Midwest who are Native Americans. It just opens up a whole new world. It's the bus stop. It's like from here I can go anywhere.
Absolutely. I see this so much in terms of just getting out of Silicon Valley. For all the people on your podcast who are listening, who are focused on following all the people program or the YCombinators or, you know, Peter Thiel, the innovators in Silicon Valley as Elon Musk and others, you know what? Go follow a CTO or a CIO from Des Moines, Iowa. Go follow a technical technology leader or just even some influential technology consumers who are in Kansas City, who are in Bozeman, Montana. You know what? Always on the Internet, not even a thing! Bandwidth, not a thing being able to schedule a zoom call any time of the day or night. Not a thing for some people. Understanding the different lived experiences. Obviously, the technology lived experience is one thing, but also the human lived experience, like you say, of minorities, of people of color. If you follow them, you learn to have a conversation with them as people definitely get outside of your own headspace and start to get these new ideas and start to learn that the world is an amazing but also amazingly diverse place.
I remember watching a documentary, I think it's called Up the Yangtze. There's a scene in it, a huge Chinese city that I'd never heard of. So I went and looked it up on Wikipedia and not only is that city bigger than London, there's 10 other cities in China I've never heard of that are also bigger than London. And you think, “Oh, I'm so cosmopolitan. I've lived all over the world. I've got friends all over the world, I didn't know that about China!”
I mean, and doing business in China, China was part of my territory for a long time. And I was back and forth doing this. So much of technology that we take for granted just doesn't even function there for various reasons, culturally, technologically. At one point when I was visiting, more people in China had a cell phone than a refrigerator.
So the idea that you could just have someone in their house with a laptop or a desktop, it doesn't happen. They didn't have electricity. That was why they didn't have a refrigerator, but they had a cell phone because they could go to the local Internet cafe, again, showing my age and charge their cell phone. They still had that. Two tier, three tier, four tier, five tier architectures working with the China Development Bank. They actually had a five tier architecture for daily settlements. And the first tier was literally someone dialing up and sending receipts back to the local branch via a modem. And it was store and forward. There were no real time connections because they didn't have lines to send that much data. All they had was plain old copper. And we think about these other countries like the other countries. But you know what? Again, it's like that in rural America even. We think of ourselves as cosmopolitan and we think of America as digitally technologically advanced but the future is not evenly distributed. There's a lot of people who don't get that level of technology even in this country.
It's not that things start here in the centers and filter out to the edges. Sometimes the future is out on those edges and it's coming at us. And if you don't pay attention, you won't see it.
Oh, absolutely. You look at some of the industries I talked about earlier on that are having challenges and where innovation is happening for them. And it is significantly happening in those in the Midwest states in the heartland for want of a better term. You think about agriculture, innovation, for example, and there's a load of innovation going on, agriculture, and some of that's happening in workshops and brainstorming sessions down in San Jose. But you know what? A lot of it is happening in Cheyenne, Wyoming, because that's where agriculture is happening.
Andi what is the best way for our listeners to connect or follow your work?
Definitely on Twitter. I am @AndiMann.
Early adopter, got your own name.
Early adopter. I've got all sorts of Andi Manns. I never got mann.com.
How long have you been here now?
I just hit 23 years and have not picked up the local accent at all.
I can't do an American accent. I can do all sorts of weird accents. I sound really good to native speakers in both Spanish and German, apparently, but I cannot do an American accent to save my life. I sound like a parody, so I don't even try.
It's been such a delight to catch up. It's been way too long. We shouldn't let it go this long next time. Andi, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Thank you, Rachel. It's been an absolute privilege to be invited. I've had so much fun catching up again and absolutely we should do it again before too long.
"We need to transcend the traditional corporate structure - reduce the sometimes difficult journey to get collaboration in place." - Jacob LaPorte
"Government speak is different and government speak is not always interested in learning other languages.I think that fundamentally presents the challenge between government and the tech industry." - Tiffani Alvidrez
"Innovators will see the problem and the solution, possibly a full generation ahead of the organization seeing it." - Mark Pesce