When I Was a Bit Younger

Posted by E.J. Sutherland

February 8, 2013 at 1:30 PM

When I was a bit younger, I had to compose some documents for my military company. In the flight operations area, we had a new-fangled “personal computer” that had piqued my curiosity, so I decided to give it a try. I thought: “I have a degree in engineering. I fly attack helicopters. How hard can it be to use this TV with a keyboard?”

Well, after loading the boot disc, waiting for it to fire up, loading the MultiMate—yes, MultiMate, you can read about it in the Smithsonian—word processing disk, and waiting what seemed like forever to get it all going, I tried writing my documents. It was a nightmare. I spent hours upon hours trying to type, edit, correct, save, and format until I was ready to firebomb my own office. That little blinking orange cursor was laughing at me. I was beaten. So I did what anyone else would do. I shut that worthless piece of time-sucking hardware down, grabbed my electric typewriter, and went to work. It was official: I hated computer technology.

A few years later when I was engaged in the world of “on-orbit assets,” I began to truly understand the power of computer technology and decided to revisit my first PC experience. What had gone wrong? Because experience is a great teacher, it taught me some good lessons.

As a CIO, I see the same mistake repeated often. Technology isn’t just about the capabilities it provides, which seem almost limitless. It’s a catalyst for change—about creating the ability to become better at things we want or need to do. In my first PC experience, I had missed the fundamental understanding that a new tool requires you to change the way you do things. It requires that you invest in understanding how to use it in order to derive the most value out of it.

You have to embrace the fact that, to harness the power of new technology or tools, you must become adept at changing the way you work and reengineering your business processes to maximize the benefit. You have to fight the urge to jam this “new-fangled” technology tool into your old business processes. It wasn’t designed to keep you where you are, it was design to move you forward.

But you don’t get that advantage without some good old fashion investment. The lesson: understand the potential and reshape your thinking to take advantage of what the innovation has to offer. (And, P.S., not everything can be as intuitive as walking and chewing gum: invest time in learning how to use the new tools.)

One more theme that came out of my experience: avoid the urge to recreate what you already have. I wanted MultiMate to work like my typewriter. It didn’t because that would have been a waste of time. As Henry Ford said: “If I had asked them what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” I didn’t understand the vision: be tremendously better than a typewriter, improve productivity by scores, make documents infinitely more flexible.

So the next time someone brings up the idea of replacing an old tool, doing things a different way, or simply changing the reports you use, take a minute and think about the potential presented to you. The right investment could yield exceptional returns.

Topics: Technology

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