Drug references, aren't I hilarious. Actually, I am really talking about my trip to Washington DC on Friday (which is no longer yesterday). IST (my major and college) runs a trip to some metropolitan area for a day to see technology companies in action, but its really just as much about promoting our students and college to potential employers. I enjoyed my first trip freshman year and had a great time when I went on another trip in the fall, so I didn't pass this one up. Our day started at 3:30am when we boarded our bus in State College and didn't end till close to 10pm. Over the course of the day we saw VeriSign, CSC, and Blackboard. Here are some thoughts and lessons learned:
Technological determinism is an interesting concept I picked up in class this semester. Simply put, it is the belief that technology can change society and, generally, improve it. It is this belief which inspires people to put a laptop in the hands of every child in the developing world in the hopes economic development. It is this belief that pushes corporations spend millions on improving their infrastructure to increase productivity. It is this belief that motivates student like me to enter the field of information technology and we certainly stand to benefit from it. But it is only half the story.
I still believe that technology can empower people, but only when used properly.
It needs to be a means to an end and not just a means. I have seen the failures of technology determinism firsthand with my work at the Collegian this year. After studying the issues facing the paper, we decided to push forward with development of a dynamic content management system. Their systems had not been updated much in the last 7 years, so an upgrade made sense. By making it easier to update the website, we assumed that the rest would follow. A year later, though, we still are not finished and we have realized we still have a lot more issues to address. For example, if we build it who will come and who will use it?
My realization comes on the heels of a series of meetings with the editors and advisers about the status of our project. A new editor was elected this month and she wanted to share her ideas for the web with us. This was not surprising. What was surprising was that when we got down to it, we could do a number of the things she was proposing right now without a major systems change. We’ve been waiting for the technology to improve the content, when in fact we need new content if we want a better website. We need to help guide the content creators, the editors and writers, towards using the web as a medium for journalism. That is more than just sticking print stories on a web page. And the truth is a database will make little difference there.
So this post is my Jerry Maguire moment of clarity. Technology alone does not solve problems and expecting it to do so is unfair. The laptop program won’t be successful unless its backers can find a way to integrate them into these societies and their educational systems. And business productivity will come as a result of people using the technology better, not just having faster technology. So by the end of this semester we will have a road map for upgrading the website by the fall and the database will likely not be part of the initial release. We will be delivering news to the Penn State community in a whole new way though and at the end of the day that is all that matters.
Tonight I went down the Collegian to do some work and got roped into attending their semi-annual “Meet the Staff” night. They get a bunch of current staff members to go up and talk to the new reporters about life at the Collegian. It’s actually a pretty well run thing, as the news coordinator is a former journalist and manages to ask interesting questions that keep the discussion going. Among topics covered were how to handle tough interviews (like the parents of dead students) or the difference between being a football fan and a football writer. We got a moment to plug our web project and share our advice with the candidates.
The event got me thinking back to my own experience as a writer with the Collegian. I started as a sports writer, focusing on women’s tennis for a semester. I think I enjoyed the work environment of the Collegian a lot, but I didn’t like being a reporter as much. I probably blamed the subject matter a lot, but truth be told I was a bad reporter. Hindsight is 20/20 and I can see a lot of the mistakes I made back then. I ended up quitting before the start of the following fall, only to come back later that year to start the web project.
The surprising theme of the night was that a lot of the staffers all had similar feelings when they’re started. Sure its tough being new in any organization, but I think being a reporter takes extra getting used to. It seems kind of unnatural to walk up to strangers and ask lots of questions, but that’s what needs to be done. It’s also difficult to take an event a part and tell it as an interesting story while being accurate. I ended up advising those who struggled with reporting to consider trying other things such as copy editing, design, or even web.
The other thing I noticed was how much of an impact being there really is in an organization. Chris and I did a lot of development outside of the Collegian’s offices last semester and struggled, but this semester we stayed on site and got a lot more done. There were other factors, but I think being there and having people to talk to helped keep us motivated. Interestingly, they mentioned that the photo staff was cut off from the rest of news up until this year. The reason was the photo people had their own corner and stayed away from the newsroom. This year they started bringing photographers into staff meetings and suddenly everyone started working better together.
Anyway, I find the night to be much more worthwhile than I thought it would. Hearing people talk about their experiences also reminded me that there’s still I would like to do with our project and that time is running out. So that will keep me motivated towards getting something done sooner.
Apparently the rumors are true: Disney will buy Pixar tomorrow for $7 billion. This is probably a good move for Pixar and definitely a good move for Disney. What surprises me is all the bad buzz this is getting in the blogosphere. Apparently some people believe that the powers that be at Disney will rip Pixar apart and turn its movies into direct-to-video sequels. This is ludicrous.
John Lasseter will take control of all of Disney animation and likely help direct it to new heights. I imagine Pixar will become Disney’s computer animation division and Lasseter will reorganize the existing unit to start producing traditionally animated movies again. There were rumors that Pixar may start a traditional unit themselves, that won’t be necessary now. I wouldn’t even be surprised if Brad Bird (director of The Incredibles and The Iron Giant) takes over the traditional unit. Lasseter can guide both units to success with his focus on original storytelling, something that was lost at Disney for the last few years. If they can maintain both units and produce enough hits, maybe Disney can scale back the direct-to-video business since they have twice as many feature films to put out.
Steve Jobs will become the largest shareholder in Disney after this deal, giving him a lot of leverage in the post-Pixar Disney. If they screw things up, he will likely give them hell. It will also be interesting to see what Jobs does with his role in Disney. He could use his influence to help direct the company through the transition to digital media. I know people worry that Pixar’s culture will die when they join Disney, but I don’t think that will happen. Many people at Pixar once worked for Disney and many Disney people are Pixar fans. I think Pixar is more likely to change the culture at Disney than the other way I around.
I can’t guarantee all that will happen, but I do think the new arrangement will be successful. Now many seem upset that Pixar didn’t go it alone, but I don’t think they realize what they’re talking about. Pixar gained a lot from its existing relationship with Disney, using the companies marketing muscle to sell their great movies. If Pixar was forced to go somewhere else, they would probably end up with Warner Bros. – which would be disaster. Warner Bros. took Bird’s marvelous Iron Giant and turned it into a box office failure. That would have been a dark road for Pixar. Disney has experience selling animated movies (and all the spin-off merchandising that helped make Pixar rich). This is going to be an interesting partnership and I think it will also be a fruitful one.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt has a piece in Newsweek this week about their hiring practices and how they are managing a new breed of knowledge workers. Basically it talks a lot about giving employees a lot of perks to keep them focused on work and create a real team environment. The article is an interesting look at the inner workings of one of most curious IT companies in the world.
I am curious about life after Google for a lot of these employees. In my Information and Organizations class this semester, we did a project about a hypothetical dot-com that had culture issues. During conversation with the professor later, we found out it was based on a series of similar companies that she profiled during the dot-com boom and bust.
These companies were looking for zero-drag employees, people without family or social life that would distract them. Then they created a fun atmosphere that made employees excited to come to work. For most, co-workers were the only real friends they had. After the bust, many felt dissatisfied in their lives, whether they went back to school or went to a more traditional IT company. Most felt none of these experiences matched the importance of their work with the failed dot-com.
I asked the professor what she thought of Google’s culture. She said that she would have had us do the project on Google if she thought we could pull it off. Google has done many of the same things as these dot-coms, the biggest difference is that Google is a lot more successful. It will be interesting to see what becomes of Google in the future as it grows and faces more competition.