Adapted from a talk given by Bask Iyer.
I grew up off the coast south of Chennai in southern India. For those who don’t know India, there are beautiful beaches in this area. When I was younger I did a lot of body surfing. I didn’t really have surf boards like the ones they have in California—the surfboards there were just a stack of wood that people would sit on. It didn’t matter, it was all good fun.
Later in life I moved to Florida. My friends went to MIT, but I went to FIT (Florida Institute of Technology) because it was near good beaches. I ended up working in Cape Canaveral, Florida at NASA. Waves present themselves in the evolution of technology. And just like on these beaches, it’s important to catch technology waves at just the right time.
Catching Waves, Following Trends
If you watch surfers, it’s funny to see that some will get up at 5am, get on their surfboard and just wait for a wave. They’ll be there at 5am, 6am, 6:30am just waiting for the perfect wave to come. Sometimes it never comes. So they’re sitting on their boards, they look cool, they’re dressed in their wetsuit, but they don’t do much.
But there are some surfers who take the first wave they can, and they might wipe out, but they keep getting back up and trying again.
You see, I learned a long time ago that if you wait too long for a wave you won’t really catch it, and you won’t get very far. And if you go too early you’ll wipe out. So you want to catch the wave at the right moment, ride it, and get off. Then you catch another wave, ride it, and get off…
So how do you time this right? Sometimes you have to take some risks. It [MH2] might not always end well, but you have to recover quickly and get back onto the next wave.
Timing is Everything
When I started my career I was a mechanical engineer, and it was hard for me to find work. I told my son that I choose a career path doing what I was passionate about.
But the reality was that I was passionate about surfing and beautiful beaches.
At that time I was young enough that I had the freedom to pursue any activity, as long as I could be near a beach. About 30 years ago the wave to catch was computers, and everyone needed programmers. So I figured why not learn programming?
Luckily, it worked out.
Next I wanted to be a general manager, but CEOs would tell me they couldn’t find good CIOs to run their IT organizations. So I decided I’d ride the CIO wave, and it worked out well.
Some of us have been lucky enough to ride these waves. And as I mentioned, at some point you get off and get ready to catch another. Or you just sit on the beach and enjoy watching everyone else. (There is life after work, right? I’m sure there has to be!)
Some waves come back again—this time we’re qualifying most of them with descriptors : machine learning, intelligent automation, real-time, deep learning, big data, smart robotics, customer experience, digital transformation.
Keeping Up with Change
Technology is going to constantly change. Today all the big companies are tapping into information. A lot of people are going to make money in data—whether you’re one of the people actually mining the information or making tools to help those people mine the data. There’s also a supply chain of data. Who will take all this data and deliver it to the people who will want to mine it?
Years ago CEOs would always ask, “My IT department is spending so much money, it seems like a rat hole! How do I figure out if my CIO is any good or if the ROI is there?” Nowadays CEOs will comment, “My CIO is pretty good, everything is happening on time, but I’m worried he or she is missing opportunities that could help us transform.”
Every CEO is thinking about this—“Are we thinking out of the box enough?”—but they don’t know what exactly that means. This is one of the biggest worries they have. Should they hire a Chief Data Officer (CDO) or not? It’s important to keep systems running, but someone also needs to be thinking about the data, digital transformation, etc.
The key piece of advice I want to share isn’t just to take risks. Taking intelligent risks is important, but even more important is being adaptable enough to recognize opportunities when they start to swell over the horizon.
If your only goal is to be a surfer, it’s enough to show up at the beach at 5:30 in the morning and wait for the perfect wave. If you want to actually surf, though, you have to get off the beach when you think you see a swell. The path to opportunity isn’t caution, it’s jumping in the water and trying new things.
Sometimes you’ll fall, but I guarantee you that one of those waves will give you the ride of your life.