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The Rise of the Engineer Entrepreneur and This Golden Age of Entrepreneurship

Those that know me can attest to the fact that I’ve been running one kind of experiment or another since I went to Geek High– where we were required to design and run our own experiments.  Through college (glowing pickles and bi-axial loaded plastics) and into my early years in the dot-com world (credit card security online) my experiments were engineering focused and designed to resolve a specific problem, or create paths for further experiment.  Long since removed from hardcore engineering, I still find great personal pleasure in some kind of science based hack or engineering system based experiment.   Just ask the contractors on my home who had to deal with the HVAC, water filtration, and home automation systems that I designed myself.  These always play to some part of my introverted nature, as I don’t engage anyone else in the process.

Today, though, I derive much greater joy out of taking that same natural curiosity and applying it to social experiments or life hacks designed to provide deeper insight into society and lead to better decision-making.  It makes me a better investor and entrepreneur, especially as a part-time member of the product team in many of our earliest stage companies.

Fifteen years ago, a friend of mine that had just received his Ph.D in engineering and entered the work force lamented to me that the problem solving just was not challenging in the “real world” and he was bored already.  I thought about this and after a bit responded “You realize of course that the real challenge is not in the lab, but with people.”

“You realize of course that the real challenge is not in the lab, but with people.”

This moment reset my thinking and since then I have taken my same engineering/science curiosity in experimenting and hacking, and applied it to people and life.  I probably should have realized this was the real challenge a bit earlier given that as a reader of 2600 Magazine in the 90s, that the most famous hacker of the era was Kevin Mitnick and frankly it was known that he was a relatively mediocre coder, but extraordinary at Social Hacking.   Add into that I now fancy myself a bit of an Ethnographer and Digital Anthropologist, and it is only natural that I enjoy the highly extroverted process of life hacking and social experimentation.

Like a science or engineering experiment, sometimes these experiments are short and have a discrete outcome.  Sometimes they are long, deliberate, thought out processes that can have a broad set of outcomes leading to greater insight and knowledge (plus the next set of experiments).  These experiments don’t come through intuition, but rather an example of an engineer’s approach to diagnosing a problem married to the ambiguous nature of social interaction.

For example:

  • Short with Discrete Outcome: We were hiring a summer intern for RPM, and were ready to make an offer to one student but had a few reservations around cultural fit.  We found out she had already received an offer for another internship that she had to accept in 2 days.  The environment and culture of the other company were widely known to be toxic by many in the community.  Thus came my experiment:  Tell the student we weren’t ready to make the offer, but to really do his homework on the other offer.  We explained that the other organization had a mixed reputation, but it was best to rely on his own judgment.   Come back to us and let us know what her decision was and we’d take the next step.   The experiment had a discrete outcome, if he didn’t take the other offer, we’d make an offer on the spot.   It would expose more about her DNA; Would she choose the certainty of a situation that was likely to be bad?  Or, take the risk of waiting on an uncertain outcome of a situation that was likely to be good? (Caveat: we take great pride in having a good reputation for internship experiences).  It would tell us a lot about the cultural fit of the student and remove any of the reservations we had.
  • Deliberately Planned with Broad Outcomes: Despite the growth of Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, Zip Car, GetAround and the various forms of public transport in the Bay Area, I for years still rented a car at the airport when in San Francisco every month.  Six months ago I began experimenting:  Could I efficiently get from location to location while in real time through social networks and one on one interactions create a system for myself that would allow me to travel the whole of the bay area without an airport rental car. I knew of course I could, but could it be cheaper than an airport rental car, AND still let me have an insanely packed schedule.  The first experiment was simply a 2-day trip where I was in the city only.  The last experiment lasted 5 days, required multiple trips back and forth between the city and the peninsula.  I was incredibly pleased with how quickly a system was designed for me with a broad group of participants and input.  I now confidently can go to the Bay Area without an Airport Rental, pack my schedule from 7am to 11pm and know that it will cost less than an Airport Rental.  And, I didn’t have to spend a moment on the Internet doing any personal research.   I continue to add to the experiment and it will only get better.

The subtext here is I believe that it is this phenomenon of the engineer turned social experimenter that is the real foundation of this Golden Age of Entrepreneurship that we are now in.  Yes we have: extraordinary new tools for creating software and hardware, methodologies like lean startup that make it easy to start a business, and massive amounts of angel capital available.  However, these are contributing factors that reduce the friction in making this all happen.

The source of this Golden Age of Entrepreneurship is a new generation of engineers and scientists who derive great pleasure in running the social experiments and hacks that allow them to understand how society works and what the needs of people are.  No, you don’t have to be able to design a circuit or write code, but the skills developed to do these things, once transferred to the human realm create the opportunity for tremendous innovation.  My peers and myself were the first of a small number within my generation to start down this road.  It is table stakes for this generation of entrepreneur.

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