I recently attended TechCrunch’s Disrupt San Francisco conference. To say I was amazed would be an enormous understatement. Disrupt San Francisco is a conference designed to highlight and encourage new technology. It’s a place where startups and venture capitalists mingle and where unicorns are born. For those who don’t know, a unicorn (in tech speak) is a company that gains enormous value before it is even profitable. Their value is based upon an idea that is so attractive and unique that they are irresistible. Think Amazon, Netflix, Google, etc. The Disrupt conferences allow capital to identify potential unicorns and fund them.
The first thing I noticed as I wandered Startup Alley (a large conference floor with hundreds of tech startups) is that I’m old…like really old. I would say the average age of the startup exhibitors was under 30. At 53, the only people who looked like me were the venture capitalists. The second thing I noticed was the skill, effort, and tenaciousness of the exhibitors. I think the second observation was more important.
These ‘kids’ were sweating every detail to develop a technology that was utterly unique and, in their eyes, game changing. One exhibitor that stood out was a Japanese startup that built a gimbal to perfectly stabilize at a right angle to the ground, a camera mounted on a drone. The angle of the drone to the ground was irrelevant; the camera would be perfectly level. This technology may sound ‘in the weeds’ but so was the intermittent wiper setting on your car. What knocked me out was that the developer of the technology couldn’t have been more than 20 years old. She (yes, the X chromosome was well represented) understood at a visceral level the importance of her invention and explained it brilliantly.
At one of the seminars, they discussed diversity. I tend to be a bit of a diversity cynic and wasn’t expecting much but I had some time to kill. It turned out to be one of the best parts of the conference. It was led by two young Asian women each of whom had achieved substantial success in the tech industry. When they opened for questions, I asked about the rather constricted pipeline for diverse candidates in the tech industry.
Rather than pillorying me as the crotchety old white guy with a chip on my shoulder, they engaged in a thought provoking discussion with a particularly telling anecdote. At a meeting one of them attended with other, all male, leading members of the tech industry, the same issue was broached. She then went around the room and pointed out that roughly half of these leading lights of technology had no formal technology education. In fact, many had a standard liberal arts education. She then challenged me to expand my horizons.
After licking my wounds a bit, I began to think about my time as an attorney. Over the years, I’ve hired hundreds of paralegals and legal assistants and the overwhelming majority were women. Why? Because the overwhelming majority of resumes I received were from women. One of the things the presenters suggested to cure the pipeline problem was to consider unintended cues that are given by your employment advertisement. Paralegal schools tend to attract women (probably for the same reasons my ads attracted them). I wonder if I left the word legal and law firm out of my advertisement and simply sought someone with strong communications and organizational skills would my candidates have included more men.
Speaking of diversity, the conference floor was reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. Of the languages I could identify, I heard English (duh), Russian, Hindi, Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Italian, Hebrew, Spanish, German, Swahili, and Brooklynese (he was the only one I could converse with fluently). Despite the enormous breadth of cultures represented, I felt the only thing these participants cared about was the merit of each others’ ideas. I’m not sure previous generations could have done so well.
Nerds also know how to have fun. While I won’t go into details, one of the most engaging seminars covered how to start a sex tech startup. As you can imagine, it was very well attended and the presenters didn’t disappoint. What impressed me the most was the near universal acceptance of their premise…sex is not taboo. You should be able to discuss sex with your friends, children and colleagues while remaining respectful and accepting. I can barely utter the word vagina without tittering but when the presenters did so, I didn’t hear any ‘locker room’ talk. Maybe us old crotchety white guys can learn something from this new generation.
Finally, and just for fun, on the last night I was in San Francisco I went to a sports bar for a beer and some comfort food. I sat down and began chatting with two attendees who had developed a fascinating algorithm (and accompanying program) that could clean up high definition LIDAR images enabling a moving vehicle to navigate complex environments. An older gentleman sat down next too me (phew) and we began chatting as well. It turns out that this ‘older guy’ was an analyst for the Federal Reserve and was a high-level mathematician. So, now the old guy and the two young programmers are talking. Their mutual respect was apparent despite the generational difference and I loved it. That’s the way it should be.
Allen Friedman is the owner and CEO of Techaerus LLC, an office efficiency consulting firm. He is also a licensed attorney. Allen founded and managed one of the largest consumer collections law firms in the country and managed over 50 attorneys as well as hundreds of non-attorney staff. Prior to founding that firm, he opened and managed the New York and Michigan operations for the largest consumer collections firm in the United States. Throughout his career, Allen has always placed great emphasis on ensuring that investments in office technology provide the greatest possible returns. In order to achieve these returns, he focuses on three pillars of office management; asset management, training, and automation. His expertise includes document/image management, software and hardware integration, training, and process management and automation. Allen lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with his wife Amy, his children Cassidy and Gideon, and two adorable dogs named Roxie (a labradoodle) and Bentley (an Old English Sheepdog).