The best way to predict the future is to invent it. — Alan Kay
It’s possible the sentence above has been quoted or referenced more than any other across the field of technology over the past two decades. The reason, of course, is that it perfectly encapsulate the ‘anything is possible’ mentality of the tech community and countless engineers and thinkers that have, by design or circumstance, developed paradigm shifting products and processes that have changed the way we live and work.
In celebration of that spirit, we recently spoke with several inventors that are shaping the future of our slice of the tech ecosystem serving data-driven marketing, advertising and analytics professionals. We thought it would be interesting to ask these individuals that are responsible for building, designing and refining critical technologies and techniques being used by data-driven marketers around the world to share their thoughts about what it means to invent (or reinvent) the technologies and processes fundamentally changing the world in which we live and conduct business. Below are their responses.
Which inventor(s) do you admire most and why?
Robert Marsa, Chief Technology Officer, Adometry: Two that I admire most are Nikola Tesla and George Washington Carver. Tesla was brilliant and had an intuitive understanding of electro-magnetism that is unmatched. Among many other things, Tesla invented the induction motor and wireless transmission of energy. Carver dedicated himself to helping poor farmers in the south. He also invented or improved hundreds of products using peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes.
Brian Dalessandro, Vice President of Data Scienes, media6degrees: I’m a fan of disruptive technologies that change the way people live and interact in the world. An early example of this was Gutenberg and the printing press (although yes, it has been debated that the Chinese invented this many years before him). I think I admire the invention more so than the inventor because the printing press met an important societal need and revolutionized the status quo on who had access to information.
Joseph Chang, Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, Marin Software: Although those that don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, I’ve always been someone that preferred looking ahead. And although he may not be an “inventor” per se, I had a brief opportunity to work with Elon Musk during my college years. Helping him get his first company funded, I saw the way that he used a pragmatic approach to prove a concept, and then grow it to a company providing true value. Although his first companies had relatively low barriers to entry, his later accomplishments (Tesla, SpaceX) not only solved hard problems, but challenged industries with (very) established players. One can argue that the most accomplished inventors of centuries past did not face the same legal and economic forces that stall progress and innovation. Elon Musk disrupted the status quo not by himself, but by assembling and leading incredible teams around his vision — arguably what modern business should define as “inventing.”
How do you approach solving big, complex problems?
Marsa: I try to get a clear understanding of what the features of a solution would be and then reduce the complexity by breaking the problem into smaller pieces and solve those. Sometimes I try to relate the essential features of the current problem to ones in other domains that might have solutions that can be adapted.
Dalessandro: I prefer to be as methodical as possible and I try to break down the problem into smaller pieces. I then map out all of the dependencies and interactions between the parts and identify which pieces are the most critical. This might appear to be the obvious approach, but being uninventive in this case has served me well.
Chang: Obviously you ask an engineer that question, and she/he will tell you, “Break it down into smaller, more manageable problems, and spread the work.” That, for the most part, always holds true. However, it’s also extremely important to define what you value most — which aspect of the solution you will not budge or compromise on. As with most projects driven by a group consensus, things get lost along the way, and the complexity of “breaking it down into smaller problems” becomes its own problem. In which case, it’s critical that everyone on the team knows what’s most important, and what cannot be lost amidst the necessary separation of duties.
Do you think failure is a necessary step in the process?
Marsa: It is certainly possible to invent something without failing – that is to get it right the first time. However, I think experiencing failure, and knowing how to deal with it, are essential to long-term success.
Dalessandro: Without the possibility of failure, I couldn’t justifiably call myself a Scientist. Unlike the field of Physics, where most observed phenomenon can be explained by a few fundamental equations, Advertising Science has little underlying theory and is mostly an empirical process. Failure is just a different type of knowledge acquisition when running experiments (i.e., proving your null hypothesis is true). And of course, there will be bugs in your code; while not necessary, they are largely inevitable.
Chang: Again, recent agile strategies and the advent of startups rewards the “Fail Fast” mentality. Often it’s best to test multiple strategies, and it helps if it doesn’t take weeks to arrive at “no, that won’t work.” However, I think there’s also something to be said for quick successes to build momentum. Keeping the final goal in mind, often projects can be broken out into multiple phases. It’s important in a team environment to make sure those first phases are “ensured for success.” Only in that way can a team congregate and rally around something. Failure is a necessary step in the process, but it really shouldn’t be the first one. Your job as a manager should be to make sure that doesn’t happen.
What does invention mean to you within the context of marketing technology and analytics?
Marsa: In marketing analytics, invention often means solving an existing problem in a new way that provides some significant benefit. Or it can mean solving a problem that people didn’t know they had. At Adometry, we’re actively working to help customers with both.
Dalessandro: On one hand, much of today’s marketing and analytics technology is driven by mathematics, and no one can really own math (and the US patent office agrees with that sentiment). However, the machinery that drives the system can certainly be considered Intellectual Property (IP). If we separate the idea of “invention” from that of what is legally considered IP, I see invention as a technical analogue to creativity. Just as an artist paints a pictures or writes a song, I use a similar mental process to create an invention. So, ownership issues aside, an invention is where creativity, technical skill and focused methodology intersect.
Chang: In our space, I feel that we are “inventing” new methodologies every day, but it means very little without adoption. We’ve seen numerous experimental ad formats from Facebook, and Google is trying out new products within Mobile and PLAs, and even patenting “Pay Per Gaze.” The rate of adoption varies however, and it’s very hard to optimize across these until you collect a sizeable dataset. So for marketing technologists, we have to believe in what WILL work, and evangelize to the point where the data proves it. It is only then that an “invention” is recognized. This juxtaposition of art and science has always been the foundation of marketing. Most ideas are only ideas until the data is gathered, and effectiveness proven. In this regard, it’s been relatively disappointing to see new “inventions” in the ad space, although remarketing and retargeting are examples of what this new technology is capable of as well as how adoption rates skyrocket once the data proves it. At Marin, we’ve created a company around this mantra and built a platform to justify every dollar put into digital campaigns.