Know thyself

April 17, 2019 Derrick Harris

In a world driven by digital transformation and newfound corporate idealism, it can be difficult to keep your organization’s identity straight. The hardest parts might be the public-facing ones, where you’re shedding business lines or closing stores, or introducing the world to the new, woke version of your company. But it matters internally, too, in terms of the technologies you choose and the culture you let bloom.

While there are lots of lessons to be learned from the way things are done in Silicon Valley, an insurance company headquartered in Chicago probably shouldn’t resemble a startup in San Francisco—or even a multi-billion-dollar enterprise in Mountain View—too closely. Companies need to do what works for them (something Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott addresses in this interview.) Culturally or technologically, nobody else is Google.

Sure, software developers like fun offices and free snacks, and they like to experiment with shiny, new open source tools developed by engineers at big tech companies. But what they really like is being productive and believing in the corporate mission. There are cultural and technological changes that need to happen for companies to adapt to the 21st century. Big or small, the trick is to really own those changes and not waste effort on a veneer of change.

Ironically, this also applies in the other direction, as Google itself has found out while trying to establish itself as an enterprise technology vendor. Facets of its renowned corporate culture have provided stumbling blocks on this mission. Historically, there were disconnects between the way Google does things and the way traditional enterprises prefer to buy and deploy IT. In the past year to so, the focus has shifted to employee-led revolts against Google selling its AI expertise to the U.S. military and, more recently, who should be allowed on its AI ethics board.

As a Wired headline succinctly puts it (and as the article explains in some greater depth), “Google needs to grow its cloud business carefully.” The tension between supporting employee ideals, living up to its free-spirit reputation, and securing large enterprise deals has led to PR firestorms and billions of dollars potentially left on the table. In October, Google pulled out of a Pentagon bid worth upward of $10 billion, which will now go to either Amazon Web Services or Microsoft.

This stuff is hard, because it’s not a simple black-and-white question of whether revenue trumps ideals and culture. It’s a more nuanced question of where newfound ambitions fit into established corporate culture, and which one is going to drive the ship.

As a company undergoing transformation, digital or otherwise, it’s important to know yourself and what you need to accomplish your goals. Maybe you really do need to completely ditch office formality for jeans, T-shirts and nap pods. Or maybe you just need to loosen up a bit. The important thing is to make that choice for a reason and act with purpose to deliver on it.

This post originally appeared as part of the April 12 Intersect newsletter. Sign up below to get it delivered to your inbox every Thursday.

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