Home / Industry / Barack Obama, a good model for companies: Tim O’ Reilly

This is Kamla Bhatt. We bring you Part-2 of our conversation with Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media. Here is Tim.

Kamla: I want to come back to that statement, that mantra of your’s

Tim: First of, I think that users and customers and the market place are the most profound source of feedback. Google has a lot of watch dogs from Dany Sullivan and people like him to all the spammers, who are trying to abuse Google and then the principal of how you respond to that is I think very different today on the Internet. In addition to Dany Sullivan there is also Matt Cutts, the guy who Google has to be their spokesperson for their side of the story on why they are doing what they are doing. No, they are completely transparent, but they know as The Cluetrain Manifesto said that markets are conversations and they are there for the conversation. I think that is really to me the important thing for companies to do. First of all, recognize your critics, know that there are people who are watching you and engage with them. And I think there is also a mandate that you have to give to the watchdogs and that is, you have got to be willing to engage too. A great example of that is back in 2000 when I ran my net protest against Amazon suing Barnes&Nobles over their OneClick patent. I was approached by Richard Stallman of Free Software Foundation who asked me to boycott Amazon and I said Richard have you ever tried to talk to them? And he said no, and I said, oh gosh why you will keep going and running a big boycott campaign against somebody if you have never even heard their side of the story? So I wrote an e-mail to Jeff Bezos and after few weeks I got a polite brush off.

Kamla: Wasn’t that an open letter?

Tim: It was originally a private letter. It was only after I got the brush off, I said ok I am going to publish this whole thing and then I published the open letter. I got the whole net community fired up about it and I got 10,000 signatures in about 60 hours. Then Jeff called me and said we need to talk. So that process of engagement is critical, there are so many times when activists don’t take their responsibility of giving the company a chance to talk. Another great example about an open source is when Jim Allchin of Microsoft made the comment that open source was somehow unamerican. Everyone was up in arms and I said hey somebody ought to talk to them. I went and met with Jim and I said what were you trying to get out there? Get some dialogue going. I think that is one of things that I like moving to politics. Thing I like best about Barack Obama, I think he understands that and has started to build some tools. The question is if they will survive the test of actually being in the governing seat, rather than being in the campaign seat. With he built a platform, where individuals could engage, and they could take their own actions, but they are also doing a pretty good job of listening to what people were saying. That is a great model for companies as well. That is why services like and people powered customer service, getting their customers engaged in a conversation with the companies, companies moderating on what is being said about them on Twitter and blogs are all part of figuring out that process of how do we listen to the people who are on the outside giving us suggestions, feedback, criticism and then how do we respond?

Kamla: You preempted my question on Barack Obama because his candidacy and the way they run the election campaign resonates with what you keep saying: harness the power of the Internet. What is your sense on how you think they are going to be using technology when it comes to governing?

Tim: It is hard to say, because of course it will a lot depend particularly with the pressure of the financial crisis. That is going to change the priorities. I certainly worry that this and a lot of inevitable back room dealing is still going to be going on with people with privileged access. But, it does seem to me that there are a lot of people not only on the Obama tech team, but tech people, who have been working. It really is a little bit like this image that Larry Wall used for an open source project and The Onion. You know the creator of the project is at the centre of The Onion and the value is all in the succeeding outer rings that make that onion bigger and bigger. For example, there has been the discussion about the federal CTO. Well an outsider created a BarackMyCTO website for suggestions and what should the priorities for a CTO be. What is fantastic about that is :first of all the guy put it up (the website) very quickly, he has done work with Obama campaign, but its not the official campaign site. Yet people, who are also some of those insiders like I know there was a comment there from John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins, who has a pretty good conduit I think through people like Eric Schmidt (of Google), who has been talking with Barack into that whole issue. So. some individual created a framework where people can make suggestions and people, who are both on the inside and on with that potential for privleged access are still there making public comment. In our Web 2.0 Summit last week (October 2008) we had some of the same comments. We had this discussion who should that CTO be? If you look at how they are doing they literally have a site on and they are saying ok if you want to apply for a job here it is. It is not just through the back door. It is on a public site.

Kamla: So he (Barack Obama) will become essentially the first president to have a CTO?

Tim: I hope so. Certainly in the past Presidents have had science and technology advisors, but not an explicit CTO. That was kind of interesting because we did a session at Web 2.0 Summit with Padmasree Warrior of Cisco and Shane Rbinson from HP. I thought it will be kind of interesting to get on the record just what does the CTO do? This was again my small hack to get some pople. I talked to some other people, who are trying to think through that role. I said let us get a nice video interview where two CTO’s of big corporations are talking about what they do. What is wonderful is that video is available on the Internet and I am sure it will be seen by some of the people making that decision. So even though I don’t have a direct connection to that process the Internet is giving more input. I do think a lot of it has to do with attitude, and if you are willing to use the tool. I think the Obama team has shown that willingness. If you are interested in creating that platform for engagement then a whole lot of things are going to happen differently. I think Barack is going to use the Internet as a platform and hopefully not just a one way platform and all the evidence is that they understand that you build the platform where other people can act. I love this quote from Eric Schlossberg, coincidentally married to Caroline Kennedy, who once said: The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think. I reframe that as the skill of programming is to create a context in which other people can share. If you look at they really did just that. It was not just a fund raising platform. It literally was a platform, where people could become activists. They could sign up to do things. They could organize a local group. So, there are a lot of really deep thought that went way beyond of what was done for the Howard Dean campaign. It is not just a fund raising machine. It really has at least the seeds of a citizen empowerment mechanism there.

Kamla: So taking that point -- creating a context for conversation as you mentioned... Your recently concluded web 2.0 the theme was Web 2.0 and the world (Web means world). Why did you wait so long to come up with a theme like that?

Tim: In one sense it has always been a theme for me. When I have talked about Web 2.0 in the beginning it was this idea of going back to that Wired interview that you mentioned that Stephen Levey did. I was talking about this is really the next stage of the evolution of our systems for collecting intelligence. I have talked about things like Google’s project for early detection of diseases, disasters and like for years. But, what gave it particularly urgency this year for me I started thinking a lot more about some of the big problems that we face. I was getting a little disgusted and felt that Web 2.0 was going off the rails where we saw more and more trivial applications in the consumer space. Meanwhile, nobody was paying attention to the big world changing things that were happening. The fact that they were instrumenting the world for example. Everything from the examples I have given about cell phones being used to build 3D models, because of using consumer pictures or location sensors. But also just this idea that I have about the watching the Alpha geeks and what are they concerned about. I was seeing more and more people, who were just passionate and caring about those issues. And if you call it at the right time then you really get people to pay attention.

I look at this web meets world theme, I gave my first talk about it really in March at our Emerging Technology Conference. I was actually trying to warm up to a talk being given by my son-in-law Saul Griffith about energy. He was one of these Alpha geeks guy who is out of MIT Media Lab that is doing work on everything from programmable matter to open source hardware. He has a Wind Energy startup funded by Google and he is really talking about understanding the engineering challenges in global warming. We actually got to do the math. We literally have to measure and say ok if we can only have so much CO2 in the atmosphere what do we have to do to change that? So that is an engineering problem. It is not rocket science. We can actually do the math and say what do we have to change now? Let us work backwards to how much energy we have to get from resources and how fast?

So I did the warm up talk for him and I really wanted to get this across this is a really massive problem. Hackers love massive problems. I used a poem in the talk that I don’t remember the exact wording and this is the translation anyway and I feel I can do my own bastardized translation. But it has this wonderful image from the Bible of Jacob wrestling with the angel. He could not hope to win, but he grew stronger from the fight. It answered this wonderful image and he says: what we fight with is so small. And when we win it makes us small. What we want is to be defeated decisively by successively greater beings. I have loved that image. I actually recited that poem to my father on his death bed 25 years ago. It really came back to me in this context of seeing Saul tacking this enormous problem saying you know I have got this little company and we are going to change the world. We have to change the world. I am seeing people getting passionate about climate change.

So that was really the first trigger and people responded. It was like a revival meeting when I recited that poem to the people and they were just super inspired.

Then next conference head up was a Web 2.0 expo in San Francisco and Jen Pahlka, who works with me on the summit said I hope you can don’t just make all these people feel bad because they are working on companies. So I had to kind of adapt it. So, I started telling a story about what makes great companies and it goes back to the famous business book Built to Last are what Jim Collins and Jerry Porras called “big, hairy, audacious goals." So here is the same thing. I would show the scruffy Microsoft kids back in 1978 and say you know they were saying what we take it for granted now that PC’s are everywhere. They were saying a PC on every desk and in every home and back then the Titans of the industry were saying PC is just a toy. Or, in 1998 when Larry and Sergei started Google everybody was thinking search is not really business opportunity, and they were saying we will organize all the world’s information. So, that hubris if you like of the entrepreneur, who sees a really big problem. I said we have a really big problem and so I started focusing increasingly on this message to the developers that work on stuff that matters. And of course the financial crisis really drove that home. So, I started giving this talk that if you are being building a start up hoping to cash out you can be pretty disappointed. If it does pan out. But if you are trying to change the world you are not worried about the state of the stock market, you are not worried about whether you are going to make a lot of money.

You were listening to Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media. Tune back in for Part 3 of our conversation. This is Kamla Bhatt and this interview was brought to you in association with Live Mint Radio and as always thank you for tuning in.

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