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will.i.am: ideas people drive tech-first innovation

Jon Collins

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will.i.am is enthralling, sharp, and, yes, he has technical smarts and a view on the future. At a recent Atlassian ITSM event, at the O2 in London, The Black-Eyed Peas performer had some interesting things to say to Atlassian’s Dom Price about his philanthropy, and what he has learned about teamwork. More than this, he painted a picture about how his musical experiences fed his understanding of tech and how the whole thing came full circle. The TL;DR: it’s about the people.

Interestingly, it was will.i.am’s philanthropic work that first led him to tech. “Music taught me a lot, so now I like solving problems,” he remarks. Over the past 12 years, his foundation has been looking towards education to address inner city challenges – “Teaching computer science and engineering and autonomy and robotics, to kids that are at the intersection of harm’s way.” In doing so, he realized it was more than a passing interest for himself. “If I’m telling kids that they should take an interest in computer science and engineering and mathematics, then I should pursue that path as well.”

Enter: will.i.am the tech entrepreneur, bringing his experience as a producer and musician into the corporate sphere.  “Imagine if governments and corporations of the world worked the way an orchestra works, and when the whole premise is to make sure that whatever they’re making is pleasant 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 – that’s the nature of innovation. “There’s this one project that I’m doing currently, I can’t name the company. But we’re doing some pretty cool stuff!”

So, what has he learned? 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’re making music with computers, you need engineers! There’s an abundance of actors and actresses, dancers, football players, musicians, and TikTok-ers. But there’s a shortage of engineers. Imagine you’re starting a company, and somebody is like, we’re going to write this in QT. But QT engineers are invisible – there’s a shortage.”

Not just this, but there’s an absence of role models, exacerbating the problem. He continues, “I can’t wait to see what Melissa Robertson writes when she graduates from High School to go to MIT. I want to see that draft. I want to see when Melissa graduates from MIT to work at Google. The world should see that. Young kids should be, I want to be like Melissa, I want to be like Sundar, I want to be like Sunil.”

But this isn’t just about the talent on individual projects. The companies that have changed the world are the ones that have led with such innovation, not at the team or department level but across the corporation.

The standout example is Apple: “The way they do things is, wow. IBM’s cool: they’re really championing quantum computing. But think about Apple in the early 80s and how dominant IBM was. When Apple said Think Different, they were saying, think different to computing as it was – ‘Computers are meant for mainframe computing and corporations, and regular, normal people will never probably need a computer in their house. Apple was like, no, I think everybody should have a computer in their house.”

Apple’s journey from computer company to music provider, then the broadcast network is well charted, as is Amazon’s route to being an everything store and global infrastructure provider (and a broadcast network), and many other examples. But all are characterized by the people that drove their success as portfolio companies rather than one-offs. 

“Red Bull… now they have motocross competitions and breakdancing teams, and they just won the freaking F1 championships.  Wow, what’s going on with these multi-companies that are collaborating with all different types of talents and disciplines?” It’s all down to the people, top to bottom, he suggests. “If you’re a company of yesteryears and you’re only working with talent as it was, and don’t think it’s smart to bring in other disciplines, then you’re going to be swallowed up. Nokia, BlackBerry, other energy drink companies…”

So, how to address this? First, find the right people. “There’s a lot of risk takers who want to start solving problems, be entrepreneurs. You have to go and meet them out in the world, where they are. For the work I do in tech, I go to Israel, to Turkey, to Bangalore. For folks in Ukraine, go to Kiev. Go to Austin, there are some cool developers there. Brazil is popping right now.”

Next, look for ideas people, not just skills. “These AI tools, where you type in a word and then boom, a picture comes out? That means the folks that will be creating awesome stuff tomorrow are just the ideas people, because now they don’t have to illustrate, or translate their ideas to an illustrator. New idea manifesters are going to be the superstars. In music, it’s producers like Doctor Dre, Kanye types of producers. It’s going to be easy for world builders and storytellers 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 somebody’s awesome they’re going to come with a big ego, but you have to figure out a way to work with that individual because they’re going to deliver. There’s a parallel between business and the arts. With the arts comes a whole lot of ego, especially when they have success and have come from nothing. As a producer, you know that somebody’s coming with some funk, but they’re bringing the goods. Michael Jordan wasn’t known to be the nice guy, but he helped his team win championships. Steve Jobs wasn’t the nice guy but hey, thanks, Steve Jobs. And thank you for everybody that figured out a way to work with that type of personality and tolerated that. 

Building on this, be empathetic to different levels of people skills. “In the very sensitive society that we live in today, who knows if it’s going to stifle the next level of innovation? The folks that work in isolation don’t always have people skills, but dammit, are they really freaking amazing? It’s usually the folks that don’t know how to engage with people that have amazing ideas for people. My concern is, as society gets more sensitive, those folks with that type of mindset are probably not going to feel comfortable unearthing ideas because they don’t know how to engage.”

And finally, invest in future expertise. To close, will.i.am referenced a project with AMG, the manufacturers of Mercedes (reference: “I invested in Tesla before Elon took over the company. They gave me incomplete cars, then I put my ideas on them, I built two.”). With the AMG, he designed a 2-door saloon based on the Mercedes GT 63: the resulting funds went towards his inner cities project. “That build Is going to create a little over 150 robotics teams in the States, young kids from the age 15 to 18 competing building robots. Why is that important? As we get more technologically advanced and autonomous, so many jobs are going to be rendered obsolete.” 

Which brings the whole thing full circle. will.i.am’s recipe for success: Find people that aspire 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 – that’s will.i.am’s recipe for innovation success. It’s all about the people, and will.i.am is above all a people person, linking business and technology, music and creativity, art and production. “I connect the dots,” he says, and long may he continue to do so. 

NAPARAZZI CC BY-SA 2.0

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