Gladwell: David can beat Goliath in tech

What are the conditions or strategies that enable an underdog to beat a giant?

Weisberg and Gladwell, as seen from row X.

Jason Weisberg and Malcolm Gladwell, as seen from row X at the 92Y.

That’s the subject of Malcolm Gladwell‘s latest tome, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.” He marked the book’s release on Tuesday, Oct. 1., by appearing at the 92Y for a discussion with Slate Group head Jason Weisberg. I was thrilled to be there, as Gladwell’s “Blink,” “The Tipping Point” and “Outliers” put him on my Top 5 list of favorite authors.

My copy of “David and Goliath” hopefully is waiting for me at Barnes & Noble USQ.

So, having not yet read the book, I cannot relate details about his thoughts on technology. But Gladwell did say his research revealed certains trends: Technology is open for “Davids” to succeed, while the economy favors “Goliaths.”

I suspect that open programming languages are the reason. Anybody who could write html became a publisher in 1995; now anyone with a Twitter handle or Instagram feed is a broadcaster. The playing field leveled in the last few years.

And the Goliaths have armed the Davids. The giants of our computer operating systems — Apple, Microsoft, Google — purposely (and purposefully) opened their doors to engineers for the development of applications and more. Think of Marc Andreessen‘s Mosaic browser, and before that Tim Berners-Lee [beware, his official bio is circa 1991 design-wise], who wrote the specifications for hypertext transfer protocol and hypertext markup language. And before him, the computer nerds in government and academia who developed the Internet in the 1960s (and some reports argue it started even decades prior).

Those moves created the open market for software development and publishing among mere mortals (and this industry is very individualistic*). Wonderful and scary. “Google probably still think it’s a ‘David’ struggling against…a host of advantages,” Gladwell said as the audience erupted into laughter.

Not so funny — and quite ironically — the “open market” of capitalism is ruled by the Goliaths, said Gladwell. Chalk that up to all the rules and regulations, and the money?

Whatever it is, the trend is worrisome: “When the gap is too great (between the Davids and the Goliaths) it becomes insurmountable,” Gladwell said. “We will have made it impossible for a generation of Davids to rise above.”

"David and Goliath" was released Oct. 2.

“David and Goliath” was released Oct. 2.

Here are my favorite outtakes from the 92Y conversation.

On transforming from an underdog
“A disadvantage can have two different outcomes,” he said, using dyslexia as an example. The person with such a condition can experience a negative effect and proceed through life, or the person can have a positive result either by developing other skills to compensate for the condition or by filtering themselves in or out of situations because of the condition. In the book, Gladwell interviewed many C-level executives who are dyslexic, yet got through school (cheating is largely to thank, he admitted!) and launched successful careers. So, the existence of a perceived “disadvantage” is not in itself a negative; it’s how you handle it.

On cheating by dyslexic students
“Cheating” was described broadly by Gladwell’s interview subjects: from negotiating with a teaching for a higher grade to paying other students to write papers. The morality of this, he came to believe, was about survival. “Like stealing food because you’re hungry,” Weisberg offered. Gladwell agreed, “It’s Les Mis, but in the classroom!” The room uproared in laughter.

On providing exceptions to the “disadvantaged”
“For the first time I am questioning the logic of affirmative action,” said Gladwell, noting that such systematic initiatives could work against the process of transformation.

On success
Gladwell’s research for this book revealed two methods for Davids overcome Goliaths: “The capitalization of strengths” and “compensating for weaknesses.” Success is available to all of us, it seems. If we are given positive attributes or conditions, we can bolster them, and if we have negative characteristics or conditions, we can seek to develop alternatives despite them. This is true for everyone, rich or poor and smart or slow. One interview for the book had the greatest impact on the author; sadness. Gladwell said he spoke to a young woman of third-generation extreme wealth who had no motivation and no role models. Goes to show that “advantage” and “disadvantage” require context.

On his take-away
“Faith hardened by adversity is the greatest thing I took away from this book,” Gladwell said, after he recounted a story of Huguenots who refused to comply with the local government’s order to support the Nazi regime by turning in Jewish citizens. Their collective memory of the torture and persecution they had experienced for a century resolved them against such behavior, and in the name of their faith they openly defied their local Goliath. And succeeded.

On popular culture
“We valorize entrepreneurs for contributions to economy, but not to humanity,” said Gladwell — acknowledging that he believes Bill Gates will be remembered far longer and revered far greater than Steve Jobs. The old lady next to me cut the silence with applause, and it quickly spread throughout the auditorium.

Interestingly, Gladwell said the theories he puts forth in his books are not absolute. They may contradict each other at times or some might supercede others at times. I find his work to be an attempt to make order of things. Sometimes the insight is that there is no order but complete truth. “Blink” illustrates that by giving delivering proof that our gut or sixth sense is right on; we think too much.

Can’t wait to get started on this book. I’ll surely update this post with a comment regarding his take on how technology is full of opportunity for Davids. Please share your thoughts.

*Catching up on my 
WSJ from Oct. 3 — three days prior to writing this post — and the Marketplace section features two stories attesting to how technology is being driven by individuals (David) who jump from one large entity (Goliath) to another. In a story about Facebook building a nearly 400-unit residential development within walking distance of its Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters, Reed Albergotti wrote, “In today’s tech industry … employees feel less tied to a company, and more tied to the geographical location and industry. They’re more likely to switch companies and collaborate on ideas with people outside their own corporation.” Corporate loyalty circa 1950 is a quaint thought that no Gen Xer like me (or beyond) has experienced. But now tech companies are following Google’s footprints to offer a lifestyle and great amenities to draw loyalty from their employees. This truly puts the power into the hands of the Davids of tech.

The story directly below that on page B1, “You are the Most Destructible Force in Tech” by Farhad Manjoo, similarly asserts that the power of tech resides with the individuals. He writes that hardware and software decisions used to be made by a company’s CIO without any consultation or consideration for the end-user’s experience. That paradigm has switched. Blackberry was adopted by companies for securing data, but as soon as iOS and Chrome could match that, Apple and Google took over that niche. The “end users” — the employees — preferred the latter so that swung the power to the individuals.

“It suggests that even if you want to sell technology to CIOs, you can’t forget employees, the people who will actually have to use your stuff,” Manjoo wrote.

Again, power to the people. The Davids in tech.

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