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Making little dents in the universe

We attract a different type of person—a person who doesn’t want to wait five or ten years to have someone take a giant risk on him or her. Someone who really wants to get in a little over his head and make a little dent in the universe. We are aware that we are doing something significant.

That’s what the late Steve Jobs said, in an interview in February 1985. Even those who aren’t Jobs fanboys would tend to agree that he made a dent in the universe. A big one. And maybe a ding as well. I say that, as I write this post on my iMac while my iPhone and iPad charge, and while I listen to music playing … on iTunes. I say that while remembering why I called myself @jobsworth on Twitter, why I use the mail address [email protected], and why I call myself jobsworth pretty much everywhere else.

He made a big dent.

Not everyone gets a chance to make that big a dent. Which is why it’s important to remind ourselves what Steve actually said, about attracting people who want to make a little dent in the universe.

Little dents matter. Everyone should be given an opportunity to make his or her own dent; even though the outcomes will vary in size, from the infinitesimal to the infinite, what matters is the opportunity. It’s part of what gives each of us our dignity.

It’s been something front-of-mind for me for some time now.

One day, when I was around 16 or 17, I went to school in a rickshaw.

 

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It wasn’t the first time I’d been in one. But that was the last time I rode as a passenger in a hand-pulled rickshaw.

It had been raining, and the roads had flooded, a common occurrence those days in Calcutta. I was meant to turn up for some soccer training. When I got to the school, Fr Bouche (Fr Camille Bouche, SJ. Prefect of Discipline, friend, mentor, role model and father figure to thousands of St Xavier’s Collegiate School, Calcutta) saw me disembark. And that was that. Redfaced, brows furrowed, he enquired as to what I thought I was doing. So I told him. It was flooded. I was in a hurry. His brows knitted further; impending storms gathered on his forehead. And I’ve sprained my ankle. A bit. I tailed off. Looked at him. The storms were gathering force. I made my last, desperate, throw of the die. Don’t they need to earn their money somehow?

 

 

The storms broke. His voice turned to ice. So you’re worried about him? Next time, give him the money and walk. He turned on his heel and walked away.

He didn’t speak to me for a couple of days. A few evenings later, sometime after school, he saw me and beckoned. He was in his civvies by then, he’d always change out of his cassock into a short-sleeved shirt and normal trousers. And we walked around the quadrangular playing field as we talked. He talked, I listened. The essence of what he said was a variant on “teach a man to fish, don’t give him fish”. That every person should have a right to dignity in life, in what they did, in how they did it. That it was the duty of people with privilege, people like him and me, to ensure that everyone had that right. That I should never do anything that robs a man of dignity.

Fast forward twenty years. I was home, watching something on TV. Someone, I think it may have been Sir John Harvey-Jones, was in conversation with an Indian maharajah. I’ve looked around your empire, your highness, and it looks like you have about 6000 workers you don’t really need. I see. What will they do? You don’t understand, they’re superfluous, they don’t actually produce anything valuable to you. You don’t need them. I see. I understand. But if they don’t work for me, tell me, what will they do? What they do for me is part of what gives them meaning in life.

And the conversation with Fr Bouche came back to me.

Fast forward another twenty years. By then I’d joined Salesforce.com, I was at our annual customer conference, Dreamforce. [Have you ever been? You should. It’s hard to describe. Part tech conference, part political convention, part music festival, part none of the above. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced]. On stage we had Jeff Immelt and Colin Powell, in conversation with Marc Benioff. One of the topics that came up was the Middle East. One of them, I think it was Immelt, said that a key component of any solution to the Middle East was “jobs”. This time with a small j. Employment. And the dignity and meaning that comes with it. Everyone else agreed.

And the conversation with Fr Bouche came back to me.

Throughout the intervening forty years, I’ve been thinking about enfranchisement and equality of opportunity and the dignity that comes with employment. Most of that time, I’ve been working with information and with the technologies used to create and disseminate that information and the insights that could be gained. Whatever I did, I couldn’t get away from the nagging feeling that:

the tools I was working with were fisherman’s tools, that people could learn to fish by using them

My mother’s father was a teacher all his life; he retired as Professor of Chemistry at Madras Christian College in Tambaram, near Madras, when I was in my teens. My father, and his father before him, were journalists, but of an old-fashioned kind. They saw their profession as one that informed and educated and gave people options. So they too were teachers, but in their own way.  Born into a Brahmin Hindu family in 1950s Calcutta, I was brought up to respect my teachers. Spending fifteen years in a Jesuit institution made it part of my DNA.

It was natural that I would view education as a panacea, a silver bullet. And, ever since I entered the world of information technology thirty-three years ago, it became natural that I saw IT as a means of extending the reach of education.

Over the last two decades or so something else happened: I began to appreciate the power of platforms, something that would come as no surprise to regular readers. Which is why I wrote these posts at the start of the year. As I’ve understood more about platforms I’ve understood more about how they can empower and enfranchise, the role they can play in enabling and releasing human creativity. How that in turn gives people the chance to make little dents in the universe. How that dent-making gives people dignity and purpose.

I joined salesforce.com for a number of reasons. Meeting Marc Benioff was one of them: it’s not often you get to work for a real visionary. Working with people who knew how to build a platform business was one of them: before I joined the company, my sense was that the heart of salesforce.com was a multitenant platform, remarkable in its design and power; that the “clouds” were in effect just reference implementations of that platform. There were other, smaller reasons as well, in terms of the challenge the role represented, how talented my colleagues were, early exposure to Chatter. All these reasons were necessary but not sufficient.

What swung it was learning about the Salesforce Foundation and the 1:1:1 model.

I loved the idea that the founding fathers of the company felt that giving back was an integral part of the ethos of the firm, built into the core operating principles as “firstfruit” rather than upon retirement. I loved the idea that a sizable percentage of customers were from the nonprofit sector, that they had access to the platform without charge, that they could scale access at deep discounts. I loved the idea that employees were encouraged, nay expected, to commit their time, their money, their talent, to nonprofits. I loved the idea that every Dreamforce, everyone got involved in helping this happen. Nonprofits. Partners. Customers. Employees. Everyone. I loved the idea that all this was underpinned by a commitment to match funds raised.

So I joined the company.

Fast forward to today. This weekend, as we celebrate the company’s 15th “birthday”, employees were encouraged to roll their sleeves up and volunteer time with Foundation causes and customers all over the world. [For example, a horde of colleagues turned up at The Animal Sanctuary in Dorney, not far from where I live. Cleaning out the stables and pens. Building fresh shelters. Grooming the animals. And building a very large, very hot bonfire. Any guesses as to which bit attracted me?]

After spending the morning in Dorney, I came back for a video call that I’d been really looking forward t, for quite some time.

Why? Let me backtrack a bit. During my early years at Dresdner Kleinwort, I had the opportunity to make regular forays into what was then referred to as “central and eastern Europe”, doing due diligence on planned engagements, acquisitions, flotations. While doing that, one of the things I kept noticing was that there was incredible ingenuity in the midst of deprivation, particularly when it came to the use of information and communications technologies. More willingness to experiment. More tolerance for failure, for learning from failure. More acceptance of iteration, of agile working. More propensity to use opensource and even to contribute to opensource.

Necessity was their mother of invention. They made do. They contrived. They jerry-rigged. They found a way.

Some years later, a close friend, “MR” Rangaswami (he ain’t heavy, and he’s not my brother either) introduced me to Prof CK Prahalad, who made me familiar with his Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid thinking, and then intrigued me further with his views on “reverse innovation“.

More recently, Andy McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson started shaking other parts of my tree, looking at the Second Machine Age  and its impact on employment and society.

Dignity of work, in the context of eradicating poverty. Equality of opportunity, seen through the lens of inclusion and connectedness. Platforms and the leverage they represented. Innovation through necessity and what was happening with reverse innovation. The advance of technology and the jobs that get created, the jobs that disappear. Hmmm.

You can see where this is going. I started looking for examples of Salesforce Foundation customers using the platform to develop tools that would in turn empower others.

I wanted to find examples of people all over the world being able to make dents in the universe. Little dents, but dents nevertheless. Dents that gave them meaning and dignity.

On to this afternoon’s call. I spoke to Steve Wright (VP Poverty Tools and Insights), Steve Anderson (CTO) and Elaine Chang (Product Manager, Global Market Development) at Grameen Foundation. [Love their tagline: Connecting the World’s Poor to their Potential].

They told me about TaroWorks. An Android app built on top of a force.com application on the salesforce platform. Empowering people working in the field in nonprofits to measure what they’re doing, how they’re doing, what impact they’re having. What’s working, what’s not working. The screenshots below will give you a sense of the application.

 

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For some years now I’ve been hearing about the challenges to do with nonprofit fieldwork in terms of measurement, benchmarks and comparisons. When you make little dents, knowing that you are making a dent is important. As Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi reminded us in Flow, people work at a higher level of performance when they work on things that stretch them, but there are at least two other characteristics needed. They need to know what the job is, where it fits into the overall scheme of things. And they need to know how they’re doing, who can help them. Definitions, feedback loops and coaching.

So today, on the 15th anniversary of salesforce.com, I was encouraged. Encouraged about things that have mattered to me for a very long time.

Today I saw people building platforms and ecosystems that would help others learn to fish. That would help others create environments where they can find dignity in what they do.

I think there are already around 1.4 million developers on the salesforce platform. When I see examples like TaroWorks, I realise that the next 1.4 million may come much sooner.

All making dents in the universe. Little dents. Dents with dignity.

Posted in Four pillars .


7 Responses

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  1. Al Tepper says

    Amazing. You have such a temporally unlimited mind. How lucky I am to live at the same time as you JP. Keep denting!!! Namaste :)

  2. JP says

    thank you Al. appreciate the feedback

  3. Bill Andersen says

    Thanks for your perspective and years of learning the value of life. I do believe that the small “dents” will come faster and faster for this generation. Smart people with technology will make it happen????

  4. JP says

    @Bill the role of the “smart people and the technology” is only in enabling, in helping release the potential. the small dents come from everyone. this is about people first and technology at best second

  5. Steve Wright says

    JP, I would like to express a huge thank you for your thoughts on this blog. At Grameen Foundation we are constantly trying to understand our relationship to the end beneficiary – to the poor. We struggle with what language to use. We struggle with understanding and measuring the nature of our impact. We struggle with how far up the ecosystem we can allow ourselves to go or must we always be providing services directly to the poor. We struggle because we want a world where everyone – really, absolutely everyone – with dignity and with purpose, can make a dent. Thank you again for the blog and for meeting with us to learn about TaroWorks. I think I would like to live in a well dented world.

  6. JP says

    @steve a pleasure. It was good to talk to all of you at GF/TW

  7. Isabel Kelly says

    Thank you so much JP for the dents you make yourself and for sharing the dents we are able to make with Salesforce Foundation and our ecosystem of amazing organizations, including Steve and Steve at Grameen. Other little dents that hopefully work towards Fr.Bouche’s ethos are that we’re using the Salesforce Academic Alliance program, plus some grant money, to create jobs around our technology in Kenya and soon in India. Salesforce is an amazing platform for organizational development, and also for personal skill developing leading to work … Your articulation of what we’re doing and why we do it is so wonderful. Thank you!



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