will.i.am ideas that people drive technological innovation

will.i.am is charming, sharp, and yes, he has technical smarts and an eye for the future. At the recent Atlassian ITSM event at London’s O2, The Black-Eyed Peas singer had some interesting things to say to Atlassian’s Dom Price about his charity and what he’s learned about teamwork. Furthermore, he drew on how his musical experiences feed his understanding of technology and how it all turns around. TL;DR. it is about the people.

Interestingly, it was will.i.am’s charity work that first led him to tech. “Music has taught me a lot, so now I like to solve problems,” he says. For the past 12 years, his foundation has been committed to education to address inner city challenges; In doing so, he realized that it was more than a passing interest to him. “If I’m telling kids that they should be interested in computer science, engineering and math, then I should be going that way too.”

Enter will.i.am, a tech entrepreneur bringing his experience as a producer and musician to the corporate realm. “Imagine if the governments and corporations of the world worked like an orchestra, and the whole premise is to make sure that what they create is pleasing to the ear.” While some of his work has been very public, with brands like Coca-Cola and Intel, many of his projects are behind closed doors; such is the nature of innovation. “There is this one project that I am doing now, I can’t mention the name of the company. But we’re doing some pretty cool stuff.”

So what did he learn? First, engineering is what drives so much of the innovation we see today. “I tell my kids that good music is great, but we can’t make it without innovators and engineers. If you make music on a computer, you need engineers. There are actors and actresses, dancers, footballers, musicians and TikTokers galore. But there is a shortage of engineers. Imagine you’re starting a company and someone is like, we’re going to write this in QT. But QT engineers are invisible. there is a shortage.”

Not only this, but the lack of role models exacerbates the problem. He continues. “I can’t wait to see what Melissa Robertson writes when she graduates high school to go to MIT. I want to see that project. I want to see when Melissa graduated from MIT to work at Google. The world needs to see it. Young kids should be, I want to be like Melissa, I want to be like Sundar, I want to be like Sunil.”

But this is not only about the talent of individual projects. Companies that have changed the world are those that have led such innovation, not at the team or department level, but across the entire corporation.

A prominent example is Apple. IBM is great. they do support quantum computing. But think about Apple in the early 80s and how dominant IBM was. When Apple said Think Different, they were saying think differently than computing as it was; Apple was like, no, I think everyone should have a computer in their home.”

Apple’s journey from computer company to music provider to broadcast network is well-charted, as is Amazon’s path to everything store and infrastructure provider (and broadcast network) and many other examples. But all are characterized by people who made their success as portfolio companies, not one-offs.

“Red Bull… now they have motocross racing and breakdancing teams and they just won the freaking F1 championships. Wow, what’s going on with these diverse companies that collaborate with different types of talent and disciplines?’ Everything depends on the people, from top to bottom, he suggests. “If you’re a company of the past and you’re only working with talent as it was, and you don’t think it’s smart to bring in other disciplines, you’re going to get swallowed up. Nokia, BlackBerry, other energy drink companies…”

So how to solve this problem? First, find the right people. “There are a lot of risk takers who want to start solving problems, to be entrepreneurs. You have to go and meet them in the world where they are. I go to Israel, Turkey, Bangalore for my work in the technical field. For Ukrainians, go to Kiev. Go to Austin, there are some great developers there. Brazil is exploding right now.”

Next, look for people’s ideas, not just skills. “These AI tools where you type in a word and then boom, a picture comes out. That means the people who will create great things tomorrow are just the ideas, because now they don’t have to illustrate or translate their ideas to an illustrator. Superstars will be the exponents of new ideas. In music, it’s producers like Doctor Dre, Kanye’s producers. World builders and storytellers will find it easy to tell stories and build worlds with these new AI tools. It’s liberating, but it’s also threatening if all you do is illustrate.

Third, learn how to manage personalities. “If someone’s great, they’re going to come with a big ego, but you have to find a way to work with that individual because they’re going to get there. There is a parallel between business and art. There’s a whole lot of ego that comes with the arts, especially when they’re successful and come from nothing. As a producer, you know somebody’s coming with some funk, but they’re bringing the goods. Michael Jordan was not known to be a handsome guy, but he helped his team win championships. Steve Jobs wasn’t a very nice guy, but thanks, Steve Jobs. And kudos to everyone who has found a way to work with that type of personality and put up with it.

Based on this, empathize with people’s different skill levels. “In the highly sensitive society we live in today, who knows if it will stifle the next level of innovation? People who work in isolation don’t always have people skills, but damn, they’re really amazing. It’s usually people who don’t know how to communicate with people who have amazing ideas for people. My concern is that as society becomes more sensitive, people with that type of mindset probably won’t feel like coming up with ideas because they don’t know how to engage.”

And finally, invest in future expertise. To close, will.i.am referenced the project of AMG, the makers of Mercedes (ref: “I invested in Tesla before Elon ran the company. They gave me unfinished cars, then I put my ideas on them, I built two. .”). With AMG he designed a 2-door saloon based on the Mercedes GT 63; the proceeds went to its inner cities project. “That build is going to create a little over 150 robotics teams in the US, young kids between the ages of 15 and 18 who are competing to build robots. Why is it important? As we become more technologically advanced and autonomous, so many jobs will become obsolete.”

Which brings the whole thing full circle. will.i.am’s recipe for success. Find people who strive to solve real problems with technical solutions, wherever they are; understand how to get the best out of them; and invest in them now and in the future; this is will.i.am’s recipe for innovation success. It’s all about people, and will.i.am is first and foremost a people person, connecting business and technology, music and creativity, art and production. “I’m connecting the dots,” he says, and long may he continue to do so.

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