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Dreams of disruption

Some people like superhero movies while others prefer horror movies. My favourite category of movies (and TV series) are tales of founders of companies that built the world we live in. I accept that these stories are subject to some degree of sanitization and embellishment to mythologize the founder, but one hopes that the broad outlines are close enough to the truth.

The common thread that runs through the stories about founders of technology companies is the exploration of the entrepreneurial spirit and the transformative power of innovation in the technology industry. These narratives often depict the challenges, triumphs, and personal journeys of visionary individuals who have significantly shaped the digital landscape. ‘High Score’ is a documentary series on Netflix about the creation of the most iconic and influential video/computer games and the companies like Atari, id Software, Nintendo, and others.

These stories highlight the visionary qualities of the founders, portraying them as individuals with foresight and determination to revolutionize the world of technology. They showcase their ability to see beyond the status quo and envision groundbreaking products or services that change the way people live, work, and communicate. ‘The Billion Dollar Code’ is the David-and-Goliath story of a German technology startup ART+COM founded by Joachim Sauter and Pavel Mayer, funded by Deutsche Telekom, that developed the technology that enabled Google Earth and went up against Google in court.

The stories frequently delve into the relentless drive and ambition of these founders. They showcase their unwavering commitment, often at the cost of personal sacrifices and challenges. And illustrate their determination to overcome obstacles, navigate the competitive landscape, and achieve their goals against all odds. The 2013 film ‘Jobs’ covers the life of Apple’s founders, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, from their college days to the 2001 moment when the company introduced the first-generation iPod, which was followed by the iPhone and iPad in subsequent years.

A central theme in these narratives is the emphasis on disruptive innovation. The founders challenge established norms and disrupt traditional industries, introducing groundbreaking technologies or business models that reshape entire markets. They are depicted as catalysts for change, pushing boundaries and creating new possibilities. ‘The Playlist’ is a Netflix miniseries that tells the story of how Spotify came to be. It is in equal parts about the technological challenges the company had to address to find success and how it upended the way the music industry operated. Although not a technology company, ‘Air’ was released earlier this year and tells the story of how Nike’s basketball division was resurrected by launching the Air Jordan brand by reinventing the relationship sports equipment and apparel makers had with athletes.

These stories explore the dynamics of collaboration and rivalry among the founders and their peers. They showcase the complex relationships and dynamics that emerge as these visionaries navigate the competitive landscape, form partnerships, and sometimes engage in intense rivalries with other industry leaders. Although a bit dated now, but ‘Pirates of Silicon Valley’ is a 1999 film about the founding and rivalry between Microsoft / Bill Gates and Apple / Steve Jobs as it had played out up to that point.

Alongside success stories, these narratives also delve into the personal and professional struggles faced by the founders. They shed light on their failures, setbacks, moments of self-doubt, and the toll that the pursuit of their visions can take on their personal lives. Another film, ‘Steve Jobs’, focuses on the cost of ambition and takes a critical look at the relationship Jobs had with his daughter over the course of his life.

These stories highlight the cultural impact of technology companies and their founders. They illustrate how their innovations and companies have transformed society, reshaped industries, and influenced the way people interact, communicate, and consume information. ‘The Social Network’ is the story of Mark Zuckerberg and the founding of Facebook and the foresight he had for how social networks would change how people communicate and find information on the Internet. Chris Miller’s 2021 book ‘Chip War’ documents the decades-long battle between China and the US over microprocessor technology and the unique place Taiwan occupies in it. It also provides some context for the heightened tensions between the US and China in recent years.

Such stories celebrate the indomitable spirit of the founders, their transformative ideas, and the profound impact they have had on the world through technology and innovation. While every founder’s path may not be as dramatic, they provide insights into the human stories behind these iconic figures and their contributions to the ever-evolving tech industry.

There is a common thread that runs through these stories: no one does it alone. Whoever you look at, very early on, everyone begins by assembling a core team. The people on those teams tend to be exceptionally talented and dedicated. Having talked to a number of tech startup founders in Pakistan, for someone operating out of Pakistan that is often the first major hurdle or stumbling block. I cannot recall the last time I heard a team of mediocre talent build or accomplish anything truly innovative and therein lies our weakness.

That is not to say that finding entrepreneurial success, even in the technology sector, is impossible in Pakistan but that it is rarer and more difficult than it ought to be. However, the talent pool presently available is exceptionally shallow, no more than ankle-deep. The recent economic downturn has exacerbated this crisis of talent even more – many more educated people are trying to emigrate and experienced talent has the advantage.

Just as important as technical expertise are professional social skills (better known by the nondescript term ‘soft skills’). For years, friends and acquaintances in management positions at all levels have been sharing a steady stream of anecdotes of team members that demonstrate a lack of self-awareness or ownership of one’s professional responsibilities. There was a 26-year-old interviewing for an entry-level position who thought himself too experienced, too high up in the pecking order, to be burdened by work tasks on a weekend even when it is crunch time. For another, there was a programmer who had wasted days accomplishing nothing because they got stuck on something. The answer was exactly one Google search away, but the CTO himself had to do the search for them.

And so, while essential, technical skills are only one part of the equation. Call them social skills, soft skills, team skills, communication skills, creativity, problem-solving skills, emotional intelligence or common sense – what the world has come to call 21st-century skills are just as essential, and graduates from schools and universities do not have them.

And yet, people who have been at the helm of the education system for years have been selling us the dream of a public school and higher education system transformed overnight that will start graduating students as good as any other public education system in the world. A system that will overnight transform our country from one where virtually no one is capable of following the rules of traffic to one powered by an advanced knowledge economy, leapfrogging over all intermediate developmental stages that every other country had to pass through.

The ‘research culture’ the HEC introduced two decades ago encouraged grift in the name of publications. At the school level, the SNC / NCP is still at an early stage but what has come to light so far is not promising any improvement. On the latter, consider the brouhaha about ‘major reforms’ being brought to major exams like the SSC (Matric) and HSSC (FSc) of a subset of subjects. Most Boards of Intermediate and Secondary Education (BISEs) have around three dozen subjects. Yet, most of them will remain untouched and remain stuck in an era decades past.

Whither grand education reform plans? Whither human capital development? Whither dreams of innovations?

Dr Ayesha Razzaque, "Dreams of disruption," The News. 2023-06-12.
Keywords: Sciences and Technology , Microprocessor technology , Technology sector , Netflix , Software , Steve Wozniak , Bill Gates , Germany , BISEs , HEC