William he’s fascinating, sharp, and, yes, technically savvy and forward-thinking. At a recent Atlassian ITSM event at London’s O2, The Black-Eyed Peas artist had some interesting things to say to Atlassian’s Domestic Price about his philanthropy and what he has learned about teamwork. More than this, she painted a picture of how her musical experiences fed her understanding of technology and how it all 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 technology. “Music taught me a lot, so now I like to solve problems,” he says. In the last 12 years, your base has been looking to education to address inner-city challenges: “Teaching computer science and engineering and autonomy and robotics, to kids who are at the intersection of danger.” In doing so, he realized that he was more than a passing interest himself. “If I tell kids that they should be interested in computer science, engineering and math, then I should follow that path too.”
Enter: will.i.am, the tech entrepreneur, bringing his experience as a producer and musician to the corporate sphere. “Imagine if the governments and corporations of the world worked the way an orchestra works, and when the whole premise is to make sure that everything they’re doing is easy on the ear.” While some of his work has been very public, with brands like Coca-Cola and Intel, many of his projects are done behind closed doors; that is the nature of innovation. “There is a project that I am currently doing, I cannot name the company. But we’re doing some cool stuff!”
So what have you learned? First, engineering is what drives much of the innovation we see today. “I tell my kids that great music is great, but we can’t do it without innovators and engineers. If you’re making music with computers, you need engineers! There are a large number of actors and actresses, dancers, soccer players, musicians, and TikTok users. But there is a shortage of engineers. Imagine you’re starting a company and someone says, let’s write this in QT. But QT engineers are invisible, there is a shortage.
Not only this, but there is an absence of role models, which exacerbates the problem. She 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. Little children should be, I want to be like Melissa, I want to be like Sundar, I want to be like Sunil.”
But this is not just about the talent in 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 entire corporation.
The prominent example is Apple: “The way they do things is incredible. IBM is great – they’re really making a case for quantum computing. But think back to 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 probably never need a computer in their house. Apple said, no, I think everyone should have a computer at home.”
Apple’s journey from computer company to music provider to streaming network is well charted, as is Amazon’s path to becoming a one-stop shop and provider of global infrastructure (and streaming network), and many other examples. But they are all characterized by the people who drove their success as portfolio companies rather than sole companies.
“Red Bull… now they have motocross competitions and breakdancing teams, and they just won the damn F1 championships. Wow, what is going on with these multi-companies collaborating with all kinds of talents and disciplines? It all depends on the people, from top to bottom, he suggests. “If you’re an old-time company and you’re just working with talent as it was, and you 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…”
How to tackle this? First, find the right people. “There are many bold people who want to start solving problems, being entrepreneurs. You have to go and find them in the world, where they are. For the work that I do in technology, I go to Israel, to Turkey, to Bangalore. For the people of Ukraine, go to kyiv. Go to Austin, there are some great developers there. Brazil is exploding right now.”
Next, look for people with ideas, not just skills. “These artificial intelligence tools, where you type a word and then boom, an image comes out? That means that the people who will create amazing things tomorrow are just the people with ideas, because now they don’t have to illustrate or translate their ideas to an illustrator. The new idea manifestors are going to be the superstars. In music, it’s producers like Doctor Dre, Kanye types of producers. It will 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 to manage personalities. “If someone is amazing, he’ll come in with a big ego, but you have to find a way to work with that person because he’s going to deliver. There is a parallel between business and the arts. With the arts comes a lot of ego, especially when they are successful and come from nothing. As a producer, you know someone’s coming up with some funk, but they’re bringing the merchandise. Michael Jordan wasn’t known for being a nice guy, but he helped his team win championships. Steve Jobs wasn’t the nice guy, but hey hey, thanks, Steve Jobs. And thanks to everyone who figured out a way to work with that type of personality and put up with it.
Based on this, be empathetic to people’s different skill levels. “In the highly sensitive society we live in today, who knows if it will stifle the next level of innovation? People who work in isolation don’t always have social skills, but damn, are they really awesome? Usually, it’s the people who don’t know how to interact with people who have amazing ideas for people. My concern is that as society becomes more sensitive, those with that kind of mindset may not feel comfortable digging up ideas because they don’t know how to participate.”
And finally, invest in future experience. To close, will.i.am made reference to a project with AMG, the makers of Mercedes (reference: “I invested in Tesla before Elon took over. They gave me sketchy cars, then I put my ideas into them, 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 across the United States, little kids ages 15 to 18 who compete by building robots. Why is that important? As we advance technologically and are self-employed, many jobs will become obsolete.”
Which brings it all full circle. will.i.am’s recipe for success: finding people who 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 first and foremost a people person, bridging business and technology, music and creativity, art and production. “I connect the dots,” he says, and may I continue to do so for a long time.