Sunday, May 22, 2005

Overcoming the Competition – Lessons from Four Teenage Immigrants and their Robot “Stinky”

Technology visionaries struggling to get their innovation to market will immediately identify with Joshua Davis’ recent article La Vida Robot in Wired Magazine. It is a classic story of hard scrabble competitors with few resources, going head to head against a field of competitors with, seemingly, all the advantages. Within the story lie a few key lessons that we all can apply to our efforts to bring disruptive technology to market.

Davis chronicles the story of four teens from Phoenix, all undocumented Mexican immigrants, competing against other students in a national underwater robotics contest. Their teachers, assuming that they had little chance of winning, entered them in the college division since there would be “more honor in losing to college kids”.

What follows is a study in persistence, innovation, humility, and making do with scarce resources. In an ending worthy of Hollywood, the Carl Hayden High School team (Lorenzo Santiallan, Cristian Arcega, Luis Aranda and Oscar Vazquez) piloted their robot “Stinky” to victory over their collegiate foes, including MIT. Along the way they won the awards for best design and technical writing (not bad for former ESL students).

In the end there is no mystery in why the Carl Hayden team won – they just plain outperformed, outmaneuvered and out-delivered their competition. As you gear up for your next battle, here are three things that we can learn from this unlikely team of champion roboticists:

Lesson 1. Results First, Looks Second:

Stinky the submarine robot, an ugly conglomeration of PVC pipe painted in ridiculous shades of blue, red and yellow, actually drew laughs from other competitors. They weren’t laughing, however, at the awards ceremony. As ugly Stinky was, its drivers hammered their competition in a variety of tasks. There were no awards for the prettiest sub or the most sophisticated team. Awards were based on RESULTS – the most valuable commodity in the business world.

The people who bet on early market technologies don’t care about looks. They are profoundly interested in your delivering to them capabilities above and beyond those of their rivals. Your intense focus on your customer’s “problem”, and the delivery of results that solve the “problem”, is the essential foundation to your future success. Don’t get caught up in aesthetics, or the elegance of a solution, until you can deliver results that gives your customer an edge.

Lesson 2. Enlist experts that have an emotional stake in your success.

As Phoenix is not generally considered a hotbed of submarine innovation, the team knew they needed expert help. After some research, they found their way to Frank Szwankowski, a leading innovator in submersible robotics.

In fact, the Carl Hayden was the SECOND team to find Szankowski. The first, a collegiate team, called Szankowski, asked him a list of questions, got their answers, and hung up. Led by Oscar, the Carl Hayden team explained their challege, and in effect asked humbly, “what do we need to know?”.

Szawankowski was impressed, and took them on a “deep dive” of ROV technology. Then, he gave them a competitive gem - the specifications of a device that would enable them to win a critical task saying “I think you can beat those guys from MIT.” Now the team not only had killer advice, they had enlisted expert ally who wanted them to win.

The chances of you succeeding in the early market are greater when your expert advisors are actively and emotionally invested in your success. For example, a bevy of technology luminaries have recently announced interest in “solving the health care crisis”. However, talk to any actuary or hospital administrator and they will tell you these folks are hopelessly naïve in their aspirations. They have not effectively engaged experts in the field they want to change.

Also, buck the trend of surrounding yourself with a flashy list of advisors whose main role is to occupy space on your website. If they are not actively engaged in your mission, they are baggage. Buyers are not impressed by your advisor list (see Lesson 1)

Find the experts you need, swallow your ego, and get them on your side. The right ones will want you to win, and will go to lengths to help you.

Lesson 3: “PowerPoint is a distraction. People use it when they don’t know what to say”.

Thus spoke Cristian when grilled by a judge on why they had no PowerPoint presentation during the critical engineering review. Cristian DID know what to say, and could explain concepts as necessary using a flip chart and a marker. He knew his stuff cold, and could look the judges in the eye during the review. The focus was on the solution, the task and the team, not on really cool color schemes, animation and bullet points.

If you are trying to change the world with your technology, you must be able to explain it without PowerPoint. People create believers, PowerPoint does not. Your message has to blast out of your being, and compel your audience to internalize it. You audience needs to believe you can deliver on your vision, and they can only do that by looking into your eyes.

Burt Rutan, the visionary aircraft designer, can describe ON A NAPKIN an aircraft to revolutionize space travel, but the power of his message comes from his conviction in the design. Can you describe your vision on napkin or a flip chart, and then passionately convey its impact to your audience? If not, you need to get cracking.

Do take the time to read the Wired article: there are many more lessons we can learn from Lorenzo, Cristian, Luis and Oscar. Anybody who is introducing something new to the world of technology is an underdog. Like the Carl Hayden team, we can find our competitive advantage in delivering real results, getting great people on our side, and communicating our vision with conviction and passion.

PS. I you are inspired by the efforts of Lorenzo, Cristian, Luis and Oscar, perhaps you’ll consider donating to the scholarship fund set up in their behalf. Let’s get these guys the college education they deserve: La Vida Robot Scholarship Fund.


Thursday, May 19, 2005

Esther Photo Blogs a Friend.

Its got to mean something when you get photo-blogged by Esther Dyson -

Carol McCall, tech/health care visionary....


Friday, May 06, 2005

Google - parasitic computing at a cpu near you?

A few folks have expressed concern that Google's new Accelerator is really a nifty backdoor way for them to use your CPU as part of their Grid. Read more from Tech Dirt link


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