Stop, In the Name of TECH

🛑Stop, In the Name of TECH

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN. Building a new ecosystem or feeding an ancient ego-system: What’s modern tech innovation really up to?

Manoj Agarwal
Manoj Agarwal

The weather has got competition. All these years, small talk about the weather has been the unofficial ice-breaker across cultures, and the favorite way for strangers to start a conversation. That may finally be changing. The technology could be replacing the ‘oldest topic in the world’. After all, isn’t it changing faster than the weather these days?

There’s no question that technology is the official genie of the 21st century, enabling magic and miracles that feel straight out of a fairy tale. As every aspect of life and work becomes digitized, software codes are fast becoming the brick and mortar of a new world. Businesses have tasted success and – armed with the Midas touch of technology - now want to move in for the kill. In the fast unfurling, fast-evolving tech-universe we live in, the rules are eerie: Lust will overpower love. Valuations will rule value. And the winner will take it all. Sustaining this shiny new technified empire are vicious loops of innovation that hoodwink us with temptations that are loaded with sensation, but devoid of sense. Their inevitable betrayal merely shoves us another, and another, step closer to the point of no return. Our only hope of redemption? Common sense.

☯️ Yin Or Yang: Which Will Spread Faster?

Experts expect the future to be spectacular, featuring ‘unthinkable’ like brainwave passwords, floating farms, 3D printed dinners, space motels, and coffee-powered cars. Unfortunately, the same experts also predict an ugly side, where social inequality (comprising digital Haves and Have-nots), economic hegemony (by powerful technology firms), and rampant misinformation (via emotion manipulation and deep-fakes) will be common. And this is why we need to take a pause. And ask ourselves, where do we draw the line? How do we plan to leverage technology? To sow the seeds for the greatest common good, or institutionalize habits and systems that perpetuate evil at scale? It won’t be an easy choice, because there’s plenty to play for on either side.

🦹♂️ The ‘Other’ Side Of Tech

The good side of tech (and there are enormous amounts of it) - be it in saving lives, reimagining habitats, connecting people, transforming learning or creating employment – is well documented, so I’ll take the liberty to skip it. But what about evil? Who’s keeping a tab there?

Social networks are turning us lonelier by wrenching us away from relationships that matter. Atomic habits created with pervasive tech are hijacking precious moments from behaviors that count. Always-On ecosystems are turning us off natural energy systems, taking a toll on physical, mental, and emotional health.

And with kids being taught to code at the tender age of 5, the dehumanization of humans is setting in early. What’s next? Temples for Php, Angular, Kafka, or Node? After all - by making new miracles happen every day - they have emerged as the new Gods and Goddesses of our universe, haven’t they?

🤔 What’s Our X?

Remember that high school algebra teacher whose life’s sole mission was to make you ‘Find X’? What’s that X for today’s tech entrepreneurs and innovators? What exactly are we trying to solve? What is the big equation we are trying to balance? What is the raison-d'etre for the modern tech innovator?

Not all behavior is meant to be disrupted. Not in a perfect world anyway. Gratifying us all in the short term, they are hollow-flying humans in the long term.

😁🔫 The Self Indulgent Hallucination

Just like any other industry, the tech ecosystem runs on the purported noble goal of ‘solving problems’. Driven by the innovation bug, over the last 2 decades, we have been suffixing ‘Tech’ to anything and everything. So now we have food tech, retail tech, travel tech, health tech, fintech, mar-tech, edu tech, sports tech, lazy tech, crazy tech, and the list goes on.

Here is the classic case of ‘Have-Tech, Will-Solve’ entitlement. ‘Kid-in-a-candy-store’ mind-frame. Armed with our nifty codes, we’re in perpetual ‘Solve-at-Sight’ mode here. Buying intent… purchase behavior… social habits… everything seems to be crying out to us: “Disrupt me, Digitize me, Optimize me!”

🤷♀️ Is Deep-tech Deep Problems?

What is this big fixation to ‘re-imagine, re-invent, re-organize & disrupt’ everything with technology anyway? Product teams and R&D cells will, of course, tell you that they are only trying to ‘build a better planet’.

So while on one hand, tech innovation is making us mindless & busy consumers, on the other, it is deluding us with its purported higher goal of building mindfulness-tech. Even if you choose to ignore the anomaly, the implication begs the question: Weren’t we mindful a few decades back? Do we constantly need these buzzes and nudges mined with force-fit AI/ML-enabled technology? How many more innovations ( each fixing the mindlessness unleashed by a predecessor innovation ) before we stay “Enough”?

‘Rectification’ of an existing system that doesn’t need correction.

Are we trying to solve problems that are more perceived than real? This often starts out as an idealistic goal. The caveat - articulated in the timeless saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” – unfortunately, remains on mute all the while. So, as we launch a self-righteous crusade to ‘organize a sector’ (say, ‘disrupting’), we don’t realize that it is perhaps best left unorganized. We forget – sometimes conveniently – that disrupting a system isn’t necessarily the same as making it better. Some things are best left to their own - gloriously inscrutable ways. Nature solves them in due time because that’s the way she has planned it.

The hyper-local tech that’s Alladinizing everything with just a few clicks. Sure, it’s an awesome case of innovation that’s revolutionizing convenience, creating jobs, and booming the consumption economy. But these technologies are interfering with and altering our natural existence and default lifestyles. Food tech, for instance, is changing our hunger patterns, leading to obesity & laziness. They are also detaching us from ground realities: An entire generation may be growing up in a bubble, thinking their burger is the result of a backend code - rather than a farmer slugging it out under the sun in a backyard farm. Corollary: While we glibly offer the transactional Thank You, true gratefulness is permanently AWOL.

Meat tech is helping us organize an unorganized crime. Compulsive carnivore-ism has already been established as evil - for both our health and the environment (meat consumption is one of the biggest threats to the planet, measurably influencing global warming).

Consumer Tech is leading to an ‘always buying’ shopping phenomenon, resulting in wastrel consumption and greater wastage than ever.

🥁 We’re Beating The Offbeat

It’s good to get off the road and pursue the offbeat. But what happens when, in our overzealousness to create the unprecedented, we beat even what’s offbeat?

Software, after all, is simply derivative of an offline need (that’s hitherto been un-intervened by technology). When you over-innovate and stretch that derivative ad nauseam, you lose connection with the original need. And, with it, both value and significance.

Sales-related technologies that have evolved over the last decade are classic examples. We started with F2F sales discussions (face-to-face), moved to the phone and video calls, cranked things up a notch to email tools, CRM, and sales automation, evolved to AI-based bots, signals, and personalization, and finally landing - guess where? F2F. That’s right. No emojis. A long and tortuous journey that merely confirmed what some of us have always held deep down: There’s no substitute for good old-fashioned Human-To-Human.

We tried to scale the “word of mouth” through reviews-tech and mint money. And today we are in a sea of reviews for everything, difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. So finally, where are we going for our reviews? The good old “word of mouth”.

😱 Paradise Lost?

Have we crossed the point of no return? They say once you get off the straight and narrow, you’re left ‘covering up’ for your actions for the rest of your life. Justifying your next gig with a gag of an excuse. Staying permanently on the defensive as you try to argue your case. So today, as we branch out from one problem to the next, trying to solve them to the 2nd, 3rd and Nth degree, we only end up feeding the hungry innovation monster and digging ourselves into a deeper hole. By now, we are innovating for the sake of innovation, and the derivative of the original problem (if ever there was one) has practically lost everything - meaning, relevance, and value. By this time, the only remaining role of innovation is to perpetuate its own vicious cycle.

Ego-system or Ecosystem? 😒 The realization a tech professional needs is simple : Engage with your inner self with your true calling, and the existential (external) bells & whistles will sort themselves out. Start by figuring out what your intrinsic motivations are.
I’m An Entitled Tech Worker In Need of Attitude Adjustment
The cashews in the giant plastic jars aren’t cheap, they said. I worked at a small startup and there was a rumor going around amongst the…

Take the case of big data. We started organizing information en-masse and over-connecting naturally unconnected dots. Look what that has delivered: One of the scariest disasters of modern times - Data Privacy & Security. Not only have big data evolved into a big problem (precipitating, in its wake, an avalanche of innovations to ‘manage’ its own mess), but has been extended to such a high degree of derivatives that its intrinsic value is getting all but lost. With everybody’s data now in the hands of everybody else, the business case for information arbitrage is sooner or later going to fizzle out. The really sad bit? We won’t realize that we’re neck-deep in an infernal loop, and the pied piper will start to play again.

With the original purpose all but lost, the only remaining role of innovation is to perpetuate its own vicious cycle. The real problem with solving pseudo-problems (problems that don’t exist) with indiscriminate, hollow technification - is that it leaves behind a significant breadcrumb of collateral damage in its wake. The target shifts from building value to manufacturing valuation. An artificial talent crisis is precipitated. And lust firmly replaces love.

💔Love Makes An Exit

Looking for an EXIT is like placing the cart before the horse. Sometimes it’s worse – betraying the audacity to manage the future. The moment hubris whispers “You can control it all” is the moment we lose sight. It’s a mad rush to the finish line now. Funding - scale fast – exit big : It’s entrepreneurship on steroids.

😏Love Or Lust: What’s Your Ingredient?

The difference between a product created with love, and one that’s the labor of lust, is usually stark. And not just tech, but in every sphere of life. We enjoy receiving a greeting card from someone because the words were scribbled with fondness. We relish the meal cooked by Mom because the main ingredient is affection. The same applies to software.

A product that has been dotingly shepherded from conception to launch by a passionate single team is very different from one where ‘ownership’ has been changing hands frequently and fickle team members have been playing musical chairs. We must remember that if love is contagious, so is lust. Founders and teams can’t hide it. Which means that sooner than later, the complete lack of attachment to the idea is bound to show in the product experience. So a fickle minded team always looking for greener (read dollars) pastures will inevitably lead to fickle minded customers with no loyalty to the product. We sulk and complain about low customer attention spans, little realizing that it is the handiwork of an unstable team that’s more interested in its own journey than the buyer’s.

#WorkFromHome - now a firm reality – sucks away the last remaining chances of human chemistry. As the ‘trust’ part of the trust economy goes into a tailspin, a new breed of loyalty-tech will be created as a derivative to halt the slide. A new loop will begin. I rest my case.

🧑🏻💼 The New ‘Business Class’

With everyone playing for spoils at this stage, we see the rise of the new, all-powerful ‘tech collar worker’. It’s a brand new social class with special status and unheard-of privileges. Like undisputed rights to the last slice of pizza at the annual Offsite (if they stick around for that long, that is). Like a ‘Beemer’ perk. Like the right to hold the hirer hostage with a last-minute ransom that ups the package by another $10k (if you protest, they will nonchalantly ghost your interview). They know they are the ones calling the shots. That, in the new cold war for talent  – where every company is looking to hire that 0.1% of the tech population (ironically, to solve a problem created by the previous 0.1%) – they are the prize catch. And as salaries spiral out of control, the tech / non-tech divide deepens a little more. The

Courting drama 💃 Serenading tech talent is like watching a documentary on courting habits of our biodiverse planet. The emotion.. The heartbreaks… The drama…  the similarities are endless and uncanny.

Demand for tech talent could spell alarming attrition rates at IT companies
Employees are leaving their jobs amid increased demand for the best talent in digital skills

🔜 Too Much, Too Soon.

Tech workers – who their employers invested in for upskilling – now expect to be compensated higher for newly acquired tech skills. Hockey stick growth or hockey stick salaries? 🏒 IT teams are turning down several offers and demanding a steep hike if they are to commit themselves to any employer.

👨💻Do Tech Workers Deserve A Parallel Universe?

We’ve always had a special corner for the tribe. Not just in our hearts, but in the workplace architecture as well. Take a walk through the plush universe of tech giants - whereas much innovation goes into cracking employee loyalty codes (with 50-course meals, Mercedes as joining bonus, and holidays in Hilton featuring as strategic gambits) as cracking software codes - and you see what I mean. Mindless poaching-fishing-headhunting is giving modern-day ‘Unicorns’ - once a spectacular fictional character - a bad name.

Why is everything from salaries to food menu to facilities to perks to benefits to treatment etc. etc., is a differential? With these infinite benefits, perks & “engagement activities”, one often wondered: With all this going on, when do these folks find time to work? From Maine to Manipur, it’s the same narrative.

➗ When Will We Dissolve The IT-non IT Divide?

Do tech stars deserve their hour under the sun? Sure. But so do our ninja’s, samurai’s and saviors from Sales, Customer Success, Product, Operations, Marketing and HR. If your dream is working, rest assured it’s because the ENTIRE team is.

Why this step-fatherly treatment for the Non-Tech folks? Don’t they belong to the same company? Don’t they all generate revenue? Back in the day, being on the receiving side of all the attention and glory, frankly, I wasn’t complaining. I plead guilty now. Today, I think the time has come to question the Great Divide. Or at least draw it out in the open, under broad daylight. Make it a part of the workplace narrative, the public discourse. I believe my friends from both sides of this unfair LOC (with friends on the opposite side) have felt and experienced it. I invite you to join the debate.

Pitch it perfect before you can pitch it to the investors, learn to pitch it to your potential hires. 😅😎

🏁 The Upshot

👎For Entrepreneurs & Companies

The scramble for the top tech talent has turned every CXO into a part-time CTO (Chief Talent Officer). Snaring tech talent is now a universal sport. Like the notice outside the café door that says “We’re Open”, every company now has a notice outside its door (or on its website) saying “We’re Hiring’”.

👎For Talent

At the top of the food chain, as they survey the landscape with a presence that reminds you of Disney’s Lion King poster, the tekkies now enjoy rampant and unchecked powers - the likes of which have rarely been witnessed in the talent universe before.

As they swag into interviews with multiple job offers in hand - they make it amply clear that while they are willing to go on your rolls, the only boss they will serve is Plutus (the Greek God of wealth).

It’s a trading mind-set that sets in early these days. Right, in fact, at Class XII level when broad career decisions are mulled. The goal is to celebrate graduation convocation day with a black cap in one hand, and multiple offers in the other. And hit the ground running as top talent goes under the hammer from Day One. Highest bidder wins. Mercenary template.

By the time you actually join the job, you are in a highly distracted frame of mind. It never really settles down either, upsetting your equilibrium with more and more offers from ‘deeply funded startups’. You are in a geometric progression race where the salary has to multiply with every ‘jump’ you take to the next start-up.

👎For HR & Recruiter

The system is steadily and systematically losing its axes of balance, judgment, and rationality. Not to mention sleep. Good old-fashioned ethics has become exactly that: Old Fashioned. Talent consultants and leaders are having nightmares with tech candidates issuing last-day rejections, teasing them with multiple offers, and shopping around nonchalantly. Even if they join, one never knows for how long. And despite deploying the best engagement practices, cultures are failing to keep these guys engaged. The only thing cracking up an HR manager these days is, ironically, a culture joke. It goes, “Loyalty? What’s that?”

It transports you back to the Roman age when gladiators in the dusty arena fought each other to death, even as their royal masters looked on from their VIP galleries. The sense of deja-vu as stark as the game plays itself out today - but in reverse. Tech-gladiators have now assumed royalty status and the rest of us have been relegated to spectator roles. Why not admit it? Acknowledging the system is the first step to correcting it. The alternative is, like it or not, spelt h.y.p.o.c.r.i.s.y.

BY THE TIME I SETTLE IN ONE, THE OTHER LOOKS YUMMIER 😛😍 I have had several past candidates start to look extremely confused mid-interview. When I would ask them what the problem was, they would ask me to tell them who I was and what company they were at. Apparently, they had applied to multiple jobs and could not keep them straight - they had no idea what company they were interviewing with! BEGGARS CAN’T BE CHOOSERS 😱🙀 I was interviewing a candidate and asked her the common question: ‘Why do you think we should hire you?’ Her response was a laugh that spelled: Do You Have A Choice? LIVING ON THE EDGE 😬 This tekkie was answering Slack messages during the interview because ‘...My team is having a production issue and I'm the only one who knows how to fix it.

🛣️Quo Vadis? Which Way Are We Headed?

This is a narrative that can only end in one way. Lots of wealth but the loss of health, a ‘burnout-friendly’ routine, perpetual bitterness, half-baked products, a new working-class divide. Not to mention a crumbling of the moral fabric. As architects of a bold new world that’s making the unimaginable happen, our tech heroes deserve to be remembered for a better legacy.

🁠 Regaining Paradise, Before The Dominoes Start To Fall

When we make material win the ‘Be-all-and-end-all’ of our pursuits and principles, we become guilty of leveling all human endeavor on an oversimplified, common scale. We also commit the cardinal sin of putting the reward before the performance, which essentially kills both suspense and surprise – the secret ingredients that make a journey truly memorable.

Recall the days of our parents and grandparents who stayed in the same job for 20 years or more. Sometimes, for a lifetime. Without having to constantly hustle for plum-mer pay, they could focus their time and attention on the job at hand, and spare precious time for family & life.

Be it an entrepreneur or employee, we need to pause, take a step back and regain perspective. The journey back to paradise has to begin with Purpose. The BigWhy. Why are we doing what we are doing? Is there somewhere else we should be focusing instead (again, why?).

🙌 An Ode, Not A Rant

This is not a rant against tech, which has single-handedly revolutionized human civilization. Just the opposite. As a tech aficionado, and the co-founder of a company that automates and optimizes some of humankind’s most fundamental emotions like gratitude, autonomy and motivation – this is a gentle reminder, and heartfelt plea, to my community. Let’s refrain from abusing tech. Let’s not treat it like a slave ready to dance at the snap of our fingers. Tech isn’t the playdough we can twist and turn to fit the shape of our ambitions.

Let’s focus, instead, on the real miracles tech can make possible. With a pause, patience, empathy, and purpose.

😌 Let’s tech (read take) it easy: Nested loops of lust are senselessly techy-fying everything at sight, leaving us desensitized and hollow. Time to tech (read take) stock.

🎓 Students must ask themselves:

If coding is where my future lies, why have I enrolled for civil engineering or law? It’s time to nurture our hobbies, celebrate our passions, stoke our intrinsic motivations - and pivot career decisions around them. Sure, the job-force isn’t alone to be blamed. The system needs to be rethought inside out.

🏫 Educationists must ask themselves:

This ‘Rapid-Rethink’ must begin at the top, with active involvement from policy makers, academicians and educationists. I wonder why universities have not optimized students' intake in career streams that are in demand. Or how can the bureaucracy, regulators, policy makers and other state actors get more agile in ushering career transformation?

🥇 Professionals must ask themselves:

With the immense powers vested in me, when will I step up and be counted? And use my superpowers of coding to solve for ‘real human problems’ - like the environment, social problems, healthcare, equality, wildlife, employment-for-more and peace-for-all? Can I follow my passion, perseverance, and purpose before perks?

☝️ Talent leaders must ask themselves:

Is it time to innovate a ‘Glassdoor For Employees’ with scores based on their values and attitude history? It will help recruiters build an actionable opinion around candidate ‘fit’ that’s based on real behavior and not just “easy to hack” psychometric assessments.

Talent leaders and hiring managers should also look at hiring fresh talent and invest in their career path rather than just looking at the small experienced talent pool only. This'll create a lot of future talent and everyone has to come forward to make fresh talent, job-ready.

💡 Founders must ask themselves:

Do I want to build a legacy or just a bank balance? Do I only want to expand a business, or lay the foundations of a lasting social institution? Will I utilize the #NewNormal merely to innovate competitive advantage, or create a #BetterNormal by using tech? Will I pander only to the blatant wishes of my shareholders, or pledge to truly serve the unsaid needs of my customer? Will I play merely to EXIT the fray, or honor my ENTRY by raising the game?

The finest entrepreneurs aren’t just idea builders, they are nation builders too. As they code new products and experiences, they have the power to recode civilization’s evolution. To fulfill that destiny, entrepreneurs must have the patience, resilience, and vision to travel the long haul. Finding your Big Purpose automatically makes room for the missing pieces of the jigsaw: Values, principles, empathy, humility, and yes, the joy of work. Before we embark upon the external journey, this is the internal pilgrimage we must undertake.

Founders & leadership also need to build & manage a thriving work culture and invest in their people. While people & culture are some of the oldest & most discussed topics in the corporate world, not many have walked the talk. Simplest things are hardest to understand & execute sometimes, and culture is one such puzzle that needs its due share from the leadership teams.

💰 Investors must ask themselves:

Can we rise and be counted… for a better tomorrow? We certainly have the controls in our hands. It’s time to put it to ‘good use’. Walk the talk. Root for founders who have the courage to unfollow the herd. Challenge FOMO fearlessly. Invest in corrections instead of ‘connections’. Champion value before valuation. Glorify the long haul over the quick Exit.

👨👨👦👦Teamwork Makes The Dream Work.

Every stakeholder in the fray has had a hand in co-creating the status quo. We must join hands again, if we are to stem the tide. The slide will continue as long as we allow iniquitous practises (be it poaching, baiting or beyond) to rule our sensibilities. The ecosystem, however, has sufficient room for our needs, but not our greed. Why wait for the system to implode? Let selfish gains make way for common concern. Let’s collaborate - instead of competing - and coexist. Let everyone get its fair share instead of the winner taking it all.

👾Man-made Machines Are Busy Solving Man-made Maladies (And That’s The Biggest Malady Of All)

Humans created machines to build a more efficient planet. The big idea was to enable and empower our dreams and goals. Over time, however, we have started seeking solutions from machines for problems created by us. We need to understand that machines are enablers, not answers. The solution to a ‘human problem’ is, and will always remain, human. This interpretation of tech - as a quick-fix to all our worries - is one of the biggest reasons why we are perpetually engaged in a race to ‘find solutions’ from machines. Most problems on the planet are man-made, and so must be their solutions.

🎲 Humanizing Tech, Not Techifying Humans

We don’t need to automate (decimate?) everything. Let’s analyze fads and flavors of the month – be it AI, Machine Learning, or Mixed Reality - not merely by their ability to disrupt the ante, but by their capability to add a meaningful difference. Let’s stop glorifying long hours and try to rediscover the magic of the pause (when that iconic Coke ad exhorted us to take the ‘Pause that refreshes’, it was being prophetic without knowing it). Let’s substitute the rat race with a barefoot stroll in the park. Let’s remember that health– not asset balance - is true wealth. It’s good to make the customer smile, but it’s far more important to rediscover the art of smiling ourselves.

↩ Let’s Un-flat The World Please. Just A Bit.

By reducing boundaries and arbitrage, tech is bringing everyone closer and making the world flatter and flatter. But human life is not flat - it is round. Its inter-connected crisscross of Give & Take - be it of emotions, needs and wants – has to come full circle to sustain life’s ‘round-ness’. That last emotional mile can only be connected if we choose to stay loyal to our ‘human roots’. Making the world too flat, makes life too flat as well – robbing it of its magic, charm, uniqueness and taste.

👌 From Good-for-tech To Tech-for-good.

I was happy to see some initiatives like Nasscom’s Tech for good, where we are using technology for solving ‘real’ human problems and making this world a genuinely better place. There are many other established companies, start-ups, founders, investors, accelerators, and groups who are doing amazing work when it comes to leveraging technology for the public good. Let’s give tech a chance… this time, to do more good. If tech has to be your alter ego, the ego has to go

🏋 Built To Last? Or Built With Lust?

One will result in a business that lives to profit. The other will create an institution that outlives its profits. What’s your entrepreneurial formula?
Leadership Talks
Manoj Agarwal

Manoj Agarwal

Manoj Agarwal is the Co-Founder and CPO at Xoxoday. He is an MBA from IIM Kozhikode comes with 14 years of experience in building companies, technology, product, marketing, & business excellence.