Friday, October 11, 2013

Technology Tales

For people that don't actually work at a technology company, the tech world can seem pretty cool.

Working in an area where the pace of change has been breath-taking, and the potential for fabulous wealth apparently unbounded, the tech world seems to offer the best of all possible career paths.

The reality, of course, is considerably different.  High tech companies tend to be filled with brilliant employees working incredibly long hours under very stressful deadlines. Only a handful of companies ever achieve the kind of financial success that a Facebook or LinkedIn achieve; 75% of all tech companies fail, according to some estimates.

Three articles that I have read over the past week gave me a good glimpse into what it's like to work in technology.

Oracle is one of the giants in the technology business. Started 36 years ago, it has made a number of its founders incredibly wealthy, most notably multi-billionaire Larry Ellison.

Ellison hired Mark Hurd a couple of years ago.  Hurd had been head of Hewlett-Packard but became embroiled in a personal controversy that lead him to leave HP.  Ellison quickly hired Hurd, and now Hurd is one of the chief salespeople for the company.

When you reach the size of Oracle, achieving sales growth can be a daunting task, as a recent article in the New York Times reported.  Here's what a typical week for Hurd looks like:

A few hours watching Mr. Hurd (something Oracle allowed me to do on the condition that some negotiations and customers not be identified) is a healthy reminder of a basic truth about the technology industry. The world sees and thinks about its gee-whiz products. It loses sight of the reality that sales make all the rest possible.

Oracle became big in its 36 years thanks to one of the strongest sales cultures in technology. You can find so many of its former sales executives throughout the industry that sometimes is seems like the Valley’s finishing school for deals. And whatever the business, sales still is all about relationships....
It’s a heavy pace, but not that abnormal in Mr. Hurd’s life, says Julie Tung, Oracle’s vice president for global customer programs. “We aim to be out five weeks a quarter, generally three days of the week with customers,” she says. ”The target goal is 50 customers a day, with no more than 18 people if it is a round table, so they all feel like they’ve had some one-on-one time with Mark.” 

Ms. Tung lives in New Jersey and Mr. Hurd is based in California, but it hardly matters when you are getting up close and personal with 3,575 customers a year. is another hugely successful technology company. Started by Jeff Bezos in the early days of the internet, Amazon records $75 billion a year in revenue, and continues to grow at an incredible rate.

Working at Amazon, however, is very demanding and can be very stressful. A recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek carried an excerpt from a new book on Amazon.  Here's an excerpt:

Within (AMZN) there’s a certain type of e-mail that elicits waves of panic. It usually originates with an annoyed customer who complains to the company’s founder and chief executive officer. Jeff Bezos has a public e-mail address, Not only does he read many customer complaints, he forwards them to the relevant Amazon employees, with a one-character addition: a question mark.

When Amazon employees get a Bezos question mark e-mail, they react as though they’ve discovered a ticking bomb. They’ve typically got a few hours to solve whatever issue the CEO has flagged and prepare a thorough explanation for how it occurred, a response that will be reviewed by a succession of managers before the answer is presented to Bezos himself. Such escalations, as these e-mails are known, are Bezos’s way of ensuring that the customer’s voice is constantly heard inside the company.

Twitter is about to do an IPO, so it is timely that Nick Bilton of the New York Times has written a book about the company.

While some of the individuals who started at the company are soon to become wealthy, it is noteworthy that the idea of Twitter was not necessarily unique.  According to Bilton, luck plays as much a role in the success stories in technology as originality and skill:

For the ones that make it, success often comes down to a lot of luck. YouTube was one of dozens of video-sharing sites in existence when it was purchased for $1.7 billion by Google. Instagram wasn’t the first app on iTunes to share photos, yet Facebook still paid $1 billion for it.Twitter wasn’t the first place to share a status online; it was certainly the luckiest. ..Seven years after it was founded, the company with a catchy name had more than 2,000 employees, more than 200 million active users and a market value estimated at $16 billion. When it makes its initial public offering, many of Twitter’s co-founders, employees and investors are going to become very, very rich...

But in Silicon Valley, luck can be a euphemism for something more sinister. Twitter wasn’t exactly conceived in a South Park playground, and it certainly wasn’t solely {President Jack} Dorsey’s idea. In fact, Dorsey forced out the man who was arguably Twitter’s most influential co-founder before the site took off, only to be quietly pushed out of the company himself later. (At which point, he secretly considered joining his biggest competitor.) But, as luck would have it, Dorsey was able to weave a story about Twitter that was so convincing that he could put himself back in power just as it was ready to become a mature company. And, perhaps luckiest of all, until now only a handful of people knew what really turned Twitter from a vague idea into a multibillion-dollar business. 

Hard work, stress and luck - all ingredients, it seems to succeeding in the technology world.