Arrive as Strangers; Leave as Friends

Community is an overloaded term.

Every business talks about “building a community” of customers. Every technical platform talks about its vibrant “community of developers.” But what does this even mean? Often “building community” means the company takes time to engage with users in 1:1 or 1: many kind of way (green sticky note)


But when you think of other “communities” you belong to: neighborhoods, religious affiliations, school, work, volunteer groups, etc, you’re not just there because of your relationship to one person or individual. Rather you’re there because of the relationships between all of the people. A community is that feeling of having a common thing with everyone in that circle. That feeling of they’ve got my back and I belong here.

I am on a mission to redefine this idea of community in the tech world. I want to close the triangle and make it much more about the relationships between the members of the community (pink sticky note)IMG_3151

I experienced the magic of this first-hand during my work on the Microsoft HoloLens team. On May 20, 2016, the Seattle VR meetup group and the WinHUGR meetup group teamed up with the HoloLens team at Microsoft to organize the world’s first hackathon to build holographic apps: #HoloHacks.

We invited 100 people in the Seattle area (and some who insisted on coming in from Atlanta, NY and California!) to come together and spend 48 hours building holographic apps. We chose a wide variety of AR/VR/MR experts developers, designers, artists, 3D experts, architects, sound designers and storytellers. 75 of the people identified themselves as being an independent and not having a pre-built team for the event.

One of the big narratives for the event was “arrive as strangers; leave as friends”.

The first evening we introduced everyone to the basics of building for HoloLens and we did a team formation exercise where people pitched ideas and built teams to make the dream a reality.  Over the course of the next 40 hours, these newly formed teams got to know each other and their skill-sets, came up with storyboards for their ideas and built apps. At the end of the weekend, we had 17 new apps that a hundred plus new friends.

The video is a 360 one so rotate it to get the full effect!

100 people arrived, mostly as strangers. 100 people left as friends and colleagues. Lots of laughter and memories.  We all learned from each other. There was no one who only talked to just one individual. It was truly a “community” event.  And we consider every person who attended to now be a part of the HoloLens family.

So here’s my goal going forward: no matter what kind of event I’m hosting, I don’t want it to be a 1:1 or 1:many conversation between me and the audience. I want to take advantage of this gathering of people to use two things: relationships and knowledge.  I want to make sure to connect people who should know each other so they can become friends and I want to make sure people are able to teach each other things that will benefit everyone.  It’s time to stop talking “to” an audience and expecting to build community, but rather let people get to know and learn from.

I’ve learned in this way the community feels much more like a team, or even better, a family.

Tech <3 Business

Software engineers and business people have a long history of eyeing each other suspiciously.

“Those engineers are going to check in some weird feature and then insist we figure out how to sell it,” say marketing teams.

“I have no idea what those business people do, other than say ‘no’!” insist software engineers.

Sound familiar?

Both of these camps of people have the same goal: to innovate, to make the world more progressive…and to make money.  We are also very similar in our mindset: highly logical people who use creativity to solve problems for people.

It’s time to start working together, more equally to make this happen.

During a two week speaking tour of MBA schools across Europe, I guest-lectured at IE in Madrid, IESE and ESADE in Barcelona, INSEAD in Fontainebleau, London Business School, LSE and Oxford in London. At each school I spoke about tech, business, brand and how it all ties together as well as spent some time with the students to understand what key questions they had about tech. It was one of the most eye-opening trips I’ve taken. So much so, that I plan to do the same tour again…with some new learnings and ideas.

This past trip though, I learned some very important things:

It is not an accident that CEOs of both Microsoft, Satya Nadella, and Google, Sundar Pinchai, are hardcore engineers—who have excellent business acumen. They went as far as to get MBAs at top universities. They were aware that without having a full understanding of every aspect of their companies: from engineering, to organizational development, to P&L, to supply chain, to market analysis, they would not be effective leaders. They are aware that tech products are just like any other products. Sometimes the cost of producing them and keeping them updated are lower if it’s a software-only product.  Therefore, just like any other product, it’s important for leaders to understand and potentially have experience around the whole product lifecycle:

Market research

Customer segmentation

Financial investment

Product planning including marketing messaging

Product delivery scheduling

Product development

Customer testing


Measuring impact on the market

Many engineers who have have taken on responsibilities in more product or business development roles say that they finally “get” why their companies insist on data before making an investment, build certain products that seem to make no sense, continue to invest in areas no one can see the benefit in, or where the money to keep the lights on comes from.  A basic understanding of finance, marketing, organizational change and operations are important for any tech leader to have.

Business students are quite interested in working in tech, though the barrier to entry seems high as so many tech innovators claim to have been coding since they were ten. It is not a requirement to be a coding expert to work in tech. In fact, someone coming from an end user point of view will have a better idea of what the market needs—since 99% of the world has not been coding since before they could drive.

The tech industry is quite United States-centric currently. In fact, there are around 5 billion underserved people in the world looking for tech innovation. There is nothing but room for other companies to tap into these markets. Business students, especially ones that have global experience like the ones I met have quite a bit to offer, especially around working with people from other cultures and breaking into developing markets. The tech industry needs to start listening to business people who come with this cultural understanding if they want to break into new markets. What’s worked in the big cities of the United States will not work in Brazil, Nigeria or Russia.

As a whole, culture around business and tech need to change to be more inclusive. We need to make some basic business classes mandatory for software engineer. These should be as required as linear algebra. It’s incredibly important for a software engineer who wants to build products to understand the whole picture of how a product is conceptualized and taken to market. Otherwise, the tech industry falls into this category of making a product and not thinking about monetization or the customer base till later when the random “spaghetti at the wall” exercise happens to see what will make money (put ads on it!)

For business schools, make the introductory to programming that is often optional be required.   These students don’t need to become expert coders, but they do need to understand what’s hard to make and what’s not and to understand the logical process of software development.  It’s been refreshing to see non-coding hack-a-thons like ProtoHack become a thing lately. Everyone should have the opportunity to fearlessly create…coders or not!

For both business and tech folks, basic data collection and analysis should be a core competency. Without collecting customer data or being able to use it to make decisions, we are not using one of the most valuable assets we have. I know this was one of the biggest things that I had to learn to do in the past few years. InnovationSummit

At ESADE’s Innovation Summit, companies such as Amazon and Santander (the biggest bank in Europe) laid down a challen
ge for student groups to innovate their business. Every student group who presented a new product or an evolution to a product showed innovation in both tech and business models.  It’s obvious that tech is becoming integrated into every industry, as business already has. It’s time for tech and business people to speak the same language, sit at the same table and work together to build the most impactful products for the next generation.

We owe it to ourselves and our customers.

Engineer + Author + Fashion Designer + more!