Prejudice and Respect

I earned my MBA degree in 1996. I share that tidbit to communicate that tech people really can do more than sit in dark rooms and play with computers.  Here’s more. I graduated in the top one hundred percent of my class, making me the opposite of a superstar.  This is a commentary about how I’ve observed tech people and non-tech people interact. That’s the prejudice part. And it’s a plea for respect.

Several years ago, one project in my MBA New Venture Finance course was a presentation about business plans for our proposed entrepreneurial venture. One classmate presented a venture idea to sell generic, low cost blood replacement products. The instructor ate it up. He thought the idea was creative, innovative, and unique. I’ve thought about that presentation over the years, and I don’t know about you, but if I’m on the operating table and a team of doctors need to pump replacement blood into my body to keep me alive, I want the good stuff. I don’t care about saving a few dollars with generic stuff.

I was up all night putting my presentation together, and my turn came next. My idea was to set up and operate an information utility, a 1990’s phrase for today’s cloud service. I used the word, modem, in the presentation, and my instructor stopped me in mid-sentence.

“Greg, you’re using techie words nobody understands. You need to work on that.”

Really?  The word, modem, is too technical for most people?  But cheap, generic blood is okay?

I passed the course, but nobody liked my business plan. Story of my life, I was a few years ahead of my time.

Shortly after the dot com bust of 1999, I tried exhibiting at a tradeshow. I had signs and displays describing all the amazing IT services my company could deliver, and I could not understand people’s reactions.  People glanced at my signs and then either turned the other way, or if they needed to walk past my table, crossed to the far side of the isle to avoid talking to me.

I finally walked out in the middle of the isle and cornered somebody to ask him why. He said he was tired of the technology treadmill, with broken software and constant upgrades, and wished he’d never seen a computer. IT was a necessary evil, and the last thing he wanted to talk about or think about at a business tradeshow was IT issues.

I have other stories. There’s the one about the banker who didn’t know or care about the difference between his internal bank network and his bank website, the dentist who needed his brother-in-law in Colorado to help start up his Windows PCs every morning so he could take patient X-Rays, the security company CEO who killed a project that would have saved his company hundreds of thousands of dollars because it used a computer, the medical device company with a CEO who refused to acknowledge Internet threats, and the charter schools who insisted on operating system versions that would never accommodate their projected number of users. Maybe I’ll write another book with stories about willful incompetence and its consequences.

The common theme to all this is prejudice and respect.

Prejudice first. As an IT professional, before we ever meet for the first time, I already have two strikes against me. Every word I say will be gobbledygook jargon, especially if I use a word like modem in a sentence. You probably think I still live in my parents’ basement and spend all my free time playing video games and watching Star Trek reruns. I don’t shower often, and because I do technology for a living, I am therefore not qualified to talk about business issues or anything that so-called normal people talk about. If your computer breaks, you’ll ask me to fix it, and I’ll do it because I want to show off my tech skills and I crave your approval. But I’ll never have a seat at your decision making table because I’m a technology resource, not a full-fledged human.

There’s another point of view on prejudice. You might feel like you have two strikes against you before we meet for the first time. Maybe you met an IT technician who ridiculed your choice of words because he—and he usually is a he—knew more about a piece of technology than you. Maybe he was power hungry and tried to use his tech skills to gain an unfair advantage. Maybe that left you with a bad impression of all tech people.

Or, maybe you just aren’t curious about how any of this stuff works, and when anyone tries to explain it, you shut down. Fair enough – but, like it or not, technology is fundamental to 21st century society. Stay intentionally ignorant at your own risk.

And that leads to respect. I need to work on how I communicate with you. This is a challenge for me, because I’ve done technology for a living my entire adult life, and the odds are good I’ll use words you’ve never heard of. Do me a favor. If I slip into tech jargon, just tell me and I’ll be happy to work on explaining it a different way.

If you don’t care how something works, let me know that too. But a caution; if you want me to fix your problem, be prepared for some education on how to avoid it next time. That’s my price for free labor. Learn to appreciate it.

I’m not a drone, I’m not a machine, and I’m not a resource. Just like you, I’m a full-fledged human. If we both treat each other with respect, maybe we can both learn some things.

Talent

A lot of people have asked me lately, “Greg, why do you write?”  I ask myself that same question all the time, especially in the middle of the night after I’ve fallen asleep in front of the keyboard and I wake up with a sore neck and drool running down the side of my chin.

Believe me, life would be simpler and easier if I just focused on being average.  I don’t remember the last time I went to bed at a normal time and stayed in bed all night.  And doubts about writing plague my mind every day, especially when friends and family constantly remind me that nobody cares about what I write.  They don’t come out and say it, but I can read between the lines.  And, so far, they’re right.  The raw truth is, nobody but me cares about what I write, or what I think, and the odds are good that nobody ever will.  Dreams are for idiots who don’t know better.

So, why not just admit I’m a failure and take the easy road?

It’s the dream.  I want to be a successful writer.  I want it badly enough to put in the time to learn this craft. I want it badly enough that it crowds out nearly all other thoughts. Writing is the last thing I think about before I pass out in bed, exhausted, and the first thing I think about when I get up in the morning, four or five hours later.

But there’s more to it.  I need to insert a sports metaphor.  Sort-of.

When I was much younger, I read biographies of lots of sports stars.  One was Bart Starr.  Bart Starr wanted to be an NFL quarterback.  But the experts said he was too small and his arm wasn’t strong enough to throw long passes.

The Green Bay Packers drafted Bart Star in the seventeenth round in 1956, and nobody expected him to still be there by the end of training camp.  According to what I read, he prepared by spending hour after hour after hour, day after day, throwing passes at a tire erected on a wooden frame.  He made it through training camp, through three miserable seasons, and then went on to become the greatest quarterback in the NFL.  He had talent, but he won because of hard work.

As a long-time Minnesota resident, I also watched Randy Moss play football for the Minnesota Vikings.  His nickname was “Super-freak” because his body could do things most human beings only dream about.  He is still the most talented wide receiver the NFL has ever seen.  He should have captured every NFL receiving record, but he flushed it all away by relying on his talent without putting in the hard work to compete with the best of the best.

Who is more admirable – the super-freak with superhuman talent, or the normal person with a superhuman work ethic?  I know who I admire more.

God gave me writing talent.  I could feel it all the way back in high school, when I discovered I had a knack for putting sentences together.  But I blew it.  I never tried to improve.  I never got better, even when I wrote a back page magazine column for five years.

Most of my life is over.  But I’m not dead yet, and I need to make up for lost time.  That’s why I keep at it, night after night, typo after typo, rejection after rejection, failure after failure.  Because, after all these years, maybe, just maybe, I might be able to finally make something out of myself.  Maybe even become a role model of success for my grandsons.  Maybe even leave them something after I’m gone.  If I die trying, at least I died trying, instead of dying wondering what it would be like.  And if an audience finds me, so much the better.

I have a message about talent for the two or three people who might read this someday.  God gave you talent.  You didn’t earn it, it was a gift.  Just because God gave you a talent, even super-freak talent, does not make you better than everyone else.  If God gave you a talent, then you have an obligation to nurture it, develop it, and do something good with it.  Don’t make the mistake I made and spend most of your life ignoring it.  And don’t make the mistake Randy Moss made by squandering it.