Saul Alinsky's controversial teachings changed slightly to apply to competitors and the business of technology. The first of two parts.
I relate more to Darth Vader than I should.
My college years were driven by youthful idealism: change the world, help the poor, blah, blah, blah. I was well intentioned enough but financially naïve, because once I graduated, I realized that my Ivy League education had led to a student loan burden that would never let me work in the nonprofit sector.
My life's love, my Padmé, was dead. And so, like Anakin, I joined an investment bank.
My heroes had never been Peter Drucker or Warren Buffet; more like Saul Alinsky and Noam Chomsky. So my odd path into financial services allowed me to bring something to banking that few if any business school grads ever could: the experience of having organized real at-risk communities. I attacked my enterprise remit with the only tools I had, the same community organizing skills for which President Obama was mocked throughout his first run for office.
In retrospect it makes perfect sense that I succeeded. From the outside, large corporations, especially banks, look ominous, the same way that a seemingly all-powerful federal government might. But on the inside, the stifling bureaucracy and overwhelming dehumanization that come with massive scale create the same kind of systemic dysfunction and disempowerment that community organizers deal with regularly.
I didn't realize it as a twenty-something, but my move from activism to its polar opposite was just a shift in whom I treated as the "suffering masses" -- from the homeless to the cubicled; from the poor and powerless to the slightly richer and powerless.
I'm obviously not the only activist who turned to the dark side, but I might be the only one who unashamedly believes that the right way to transform "too big to fail" is to infuse its culture with a little Alinsky, from the inside.
Here are the first five of Alinky's Rules for Radicals, changed slightly to apply to competitors and the business of technology. I'll cover rules six through 13 in the next installment of this column.
Rule 1: Power isn't only what you have, but also what your competitors think you have.
Apple, Google and Facebook aren't the most innovative engineering companies. To their credit, though, they're among the most media savvy. And their marketing message is as much for their competitors as it is for their customers.
Their brands -- which boil down to "We're smarter than you" (Google), "We're younger than you" (Facebook) and "We're prettier than you" (Apple) -- intimidate potential competitors far more viscerally than any cease-and-desist letter.
My point here isn't for you to rush out and hire Don Draper. Rather, it's to recognize that you can amplify "the power you have" through a simple meme: Perception is reality.
And you don't need to be a CIO or marketing maven to exercise it. Let's say that you're an engineer and you own a legacy application that your business has long since written off. You're in lights-on maintenance hell.
You can spur reinvestment in that legacy asset through the same kind of broken windows strategy that community organizers use to get city hall to invest in poor communities, the exact same strategy that former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani -- Mr. City Hall himself -- used to revitalize Times Square.
If you're an activist, you fix the proverbial broken windows by removing graffiti and cleaning up the parks. If you're "the man," you do it by getting the prostitutes and squeegee-men off the streets.
If you're a nerdling, you do it by making a minimal investment in connecting that legacy backend with a fresh new user interface; perhaps something mobile.
For a lot of IT's broken windows, beautiful UX can and should be the first step in bringin' sexy back, the kind of new glass that gives your business partners the perception of a heartbeat and starts you down the path of recognized tech and execution cred.
And the best part is that you don't need to feel dirty afterward because engineering (not spin) got you there.
Rule 2: Never go outside the experience of your people.
The corollary in IT is that vendors are not your people.
Invest in your people. And I mean all of your people, including those poor invisible folks that legal forces you to call "staff augmentation" so that your shareholders can save a penny by depriving them of dental. Give them real opportunities to learn by doing, to play with edge and adjacent technologies, to get excited again about possibilities.
The most inexcusable lie that vendors sell your business is that they already have a competency with some new or emerging technology, that they've already solved your competitors' problem with Hadoop or gamification or geolocation or whatever buzzword makes your company question the engineering capacity of your internal teams.
Even if a vendor employs the smartest subject matter expert on the planet and flies her out for the sales pitch, you already know that she's not going to be actively involved in your deliverable. She'll be too busy being flown to other sales pitches. And when it's time to staff your project, that vendor isn't pulling its most experienced resources off your competitor's site. It's hiring the cheapest trainable candidates it can: Kids right out of school.
Oh, and here's the devastating secret about that 59-year-old mainframe guy you already employ: He can learn mobile development; maybe even as fast as any kid out of school. And he would if you hadn't relegated him (and his 30 years of experience) to keeping the lights on. Blame risk management if you want. I blame structural ageism, cowardice and a lack of imagination.
And while the knife is in there, let me twist it a bit: Ol' Mr. Mainframe wouldn't be at risk of retiring if his brain wasn't slowly turning into pudding because of decisions you made, because of the faith you lacked in your people, because you couldn't get past the usual corporate lip service about investing in him.
If you're in a leadership position, grow a spine. As for the rest of you, remember those last three paragraphs when you get to rule 13.
Join us for a roundup of the top stories on InformationWeek.com for the week of December 14, 2014. Be here for the show and for the incredible Friday Afternoon Conversation that runs beside the program.