Am I a visionary CTO? I was asked this question when editing the book, and I didn’t really know how to respond. I feel like I understand them, and I may have some of their characteristics.
Successful persons are often driven by something that happened to them early in life. Both Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos had it really rough growing up. Musk had an abusive father, and Bezos’ mom was 16 years old when he was born. Or take Gary Vaynerchuk who came to the US as a poor immigrant and had to split two ply toilet paper to conserve resources.
For these men, living through those trials somehow translated into a relentless drive to not only to be creative, but to see their vision come to fruition. They deeply understood what it means to struggle. Being a visionary is nothing magical. It’s more like an ungodly persistence. It’s a skill learned out of necessity.
Bored at work
Back when I was a kid, my dad took me to work with him every weekend to give my mom a break. I sat there, every Saturday and Sunday for months on end bored out of my mind, staring at computers. I can still remember the smell and the taste in the air sitting in that vast empty office. Perhaps out of sheer boredom, I got a taste for programming at the age of 10.
Learn to walk again
When I was 13 years old I got hit by a car. Halfway through my initial recovery I fell and broke even more bones. It’s hard to describe how difficult it was for me. I had people bathing me and helping me on the toilet during my adolescence. Talk about humiliating. I fell into depression and my weight ballooned up to 300 pounds — all this by the age of 16.
I was taken out of school for about a year and basically spent all day programming. At one point, I tried to set up a meal delivery service since I was at home all day, and I wanted food. I tried to get a credit card processor, but I couldn’t since I was too young. I remember, with my broken bones, crawling up the stairs backward after getting pizza delivered. Eventually the pizza guy just came into the house and up to my room since I ordered out so much. That’s how I ended up gaining so much weight.
In order to process payments, I needed a bank account, and the only way to do this online was through PayPal. Despite my best efforts, the business never got off the ground. Still, during this exploration, I discovered I could make money online as a freelance code writer. When I began getting account summaries in the mail, my parents freaked. They thought for sure I was involved in some illegal hacking scheme.
Eventually I got fed up with being overweight, and I decided to engage in the struggle. I began to exercise, lose weight and regain my dignity. I had to pull myself up more than once — having to go to school in a wheelchair, learning to walk again, getting into shape — all of it made me learn to kick myself in the ass and get up again.
Then I decided I wanted to quit school. We met with the principal, and I laid it all out for him. I was making money, and I knew I wanted to program for the rest of my life. We shook hands, and he let me graduate through the early exit program. By 17 years old I was a full time programmer, and by age 18 I sold my first technology for $1 million.
I strived to be the best programmer ever. Still, it wasn’t long before I saw that when you get to the top tier of programmers, everyone just argues. Plus, I realized that my income as a programmer was limited. After selling my technology, I got exposed to the business side of things. There I began to ask, “Who’s the programmer that’s also the business person?” That’s the CTO.
Know your self
When you’re trying to get your atrophied limbs to start working again, you pay a lot of attention to your body. My self awareness became highly developed. There was a lot of self reflection back then — I had to be aware. Somehow, I’ve been able to transfer this to the business realm, and I keenly recognize my strengths and weaknesses. If I can’t do it, I get the best person that can. I can only know so much, and that’s fine.
Who hasn’t had their share of hardship? I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’m not selling any get rich quick scheme. I’ve paid my dues, and you will too. It doesn’t require huge amounts of suffering to become a visionary. Rather, it requires transforming the obstacles in your life into opportunities. You become stronger and more confident as you get through each trial. So lift the heaviest cross you can bear and carry it like a champion.
Push through the pain
When I was in a wheelchair, I didn’t want to move my legs. They were weak, and I felt intense pain. Still, I had to move if I wanted walk again. I saw that I wanted to walk and did what it took to get back on my feet. In that moment, I was a visionary.
Notice anything strange about this conversation? There’s barely even a mention about tech or business strategies. In the broader sense, visionaries typically come out of the backwoods without even a care about our Silicon Valley world. Instead, it’s their struggle that defines them and gives birth to their vision.
The essence of being a visionary is not being satisfied with who you are right now, and always, always moving towards who you want to be in the future.
Can visionary-ism be taught?
Beyond taking stock in your personal story, is it possible to train someone to think like Steve Jobs? Phil McKinney, an innovation consultant and former CTO of HP’s $40 billion PC division seems to think so. His track record includes turning a $1.5 billion loss into a $2 billion profit and claiming the world’s top PC maker spot.
McKinney offers some awesome ideas to spur visionary thought like:
- Change routines (new social circles, new routes to work, new conversations)
- Brainstorm about stuff unrelated to your niche (list 50 ideas about how to start a lawn care service)
- Pay special attention to assumptions and challenge every one
McKinney also encourages us to never stop at the first answer. For example, what’s half of 13? 6.5, right? Well, in his innovation workshop they came up with 43 different answers. This means the numbers 1 and 3 could be two halves of the written number 13.
Still, you can teach someone to sing, and they might do it technically correct — but some voices still make me cringe.
Brilliant ideas aren’t visionary enough
It’s not enough just to come up with incredible ideas. The visionary CTO must have a high capacity to execute, organize, identify whitespace, communicate and lead.
Empathy & Visualization
This means developing self-awareness as well as being acutely aware of others. Feel and understand the problem then visualize the solutions. This could be a people problem or a tech issue. Observe, stop, and think.
Organize & Execute
Gather people, resources, validate experts, and put together the A team. The B team gets B results. Hire where you’re weak. Know your strengths and double down on them.
Whitespace is existing technology that hasn’t yet matured commercially. To blend emerging technology with growing demand it requires both technological and business vision. Ask questions like, “Will millions of people be doing this in 24 months?” For example, I believe in 20 years we’ll live in a world where VR is as prominent as social media. Still, planning a business around VR in the next 12-24 months — I don’t see the consumer behavior there yet.
Communication & Leadership
Being a leader means communicating complex ideas simply. You’ve got to make high level ideas stick in their minds. The easier I make something to understand the more people will spread the word.
In his book, Start with Why, Simon Sinek says, “Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do. By WHY I mean your purpose, cause or belief – WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?” It’s critical for me to understand what drives people. At it’s core, this means I care about what matters to them as people, not just as workers. This ties back to the empathy concept. What’s their “why”? Sinek’s book forever changed how I think.
Finally, communication appears in many forms, so I have to be really aware. Legendary management consultant Peter Drucker once said, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” Silence might actually be a problem screaming for attention.
Limited by your own imagination and execution
A large part of being a visionary is fully grasping questions about market viability and consumer behavior. Great ideas are only one requirement needed to achieve success at scale. The full visionary formula includes: Vast Topic Expertise + Creative Thinking + Solid Logic + Wisdom Cortex.
I find myself telling younger technologists that you’re only limited by your imagination. Act without thinking and you run in circles; think without acting and you stand still. The trick is thinking and action together move you forward. Imagination and execution together will take you wherever you want to go in life.