Tech tales from Turing

Turing Fest 2019 at the EICC last week had an American flavour, with an array of Stateside speakers, including the inventor of the hashtag and featuring one of Silicon Valley’s most highly-rated near-unicorn companies who recently set up an international office in Edinburgh. 

Chris Messina, formerly of US tech giants Google and Uber, came to the conclusion that what he describes as social technology was going to be “a really big deal” as long ago as 1998 and showed photos of him with Twitter founders Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey in San Francisco back in 2007.

Messina ran through some illuminating stats. 72 per cent of adults engage with social media in the United States, 85 per cent of U.S. teens are regulars on YouTube and, in a nod to his own creation, 200 million hashtags are used every day in the States, equating to 2,300 hashtags every minute. But, says Messina, in the race to connect everyone together we have started to see a social media fallout. The inventory of effects include digital addiction, mental health issues, breakdown of truth, polarisation, political manipulation and superficiality. 

Messina quoted Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, whose work forms a cornerstone of media theory and observed that “we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”. Messina believes founders can effect real change. “Founders’ culture informs the values and, in turn, values inform product design choices. Cumulatively, design choices define products that make it out into the world. Products impact users’ behaviour, which in turn becomes mass culture”.

Messina cited a few U.S.-based startups who are trying to drive change in this space - including Beam who are developing an “online gym for mental fitness” and Maslo, a Los Angeles startup who believe that technologies should help us grow into better people.  

UserTesting, the San Francisco-headquartered tech firm with a customer experience platform used by around half of the world’s leading brands, flew one of its senior team in to talk about the importance of empathy in product development. Janelle Estes explained that in the age of data overload, companies that forget about empathy do so at their peril: “All the statistics in the world can’t measure the warmth of a smile”. 

Fred Destin of venture capitalist Stride added an investor’s view at Turing. Before painting a picture of the “world of chaos” we live in in the early 21st century, Destin drilled into the job of the CEO of a technology startup. “Make decisions under conditions of uncertainty”, “define the mission”, “focus only on the mission”, “move the ball down the field every day” and “do the five things you have to do every day.” Destin says it is a must to obsess about culture. “You need to define it, live it every day”. 

Destin says today’s founders must harness complexity to scale infinitely. Digitally native companies like Uber are taking over the world. The ride-sharing startup raised $4 million at seed round before going on to be worth $4 billion 4 years later. Humans are not designed to live with this kind of pace of change, so the biggest winners work out how to survive and thrive amidst chaos.

At a panel Q&A hosted by social enterprise Brewgooder's founder Alan Mahon, senior executives from Skyscanner (SVP Growth, Shane Corstorphine), Monzo (Head of People, Tara Mansfield) and Trustpilot (SVP Communications, Glenn Manoff) discussed how tech can be characterised as something of a double-edged sword: while it has eroded public trust worldwide and presents sustainability issues on a massive scale with 1 billion resource-hungry smartphones and devices in circulation, the tech world also has the inherent ability to bring about real and lasting change. More so than any other industry sector or Government. 

Supporting Scotland’s top-rated healthtech company Care Sourcer on day one of Turing around its announcement of Scottish Enterprise funding that will help it further scale and increasingly tackle the UK’s chronic care crisis, I’m reminded of how tech can indeed be a harbinger of positive change.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Scotsman on Monday 2nd September