In hard times, solve big problems and do your best work

July 20, 2020  |  Roger Thornton

This blog was jointly authored with Ed Amoroso.

There’s something eerily familiar about the COVID-19 pandemic for us in the technology world. It’s not the striking similarity to the Hollywood “end-of-the-world” movies we have all seen. No, it’s more about the fear and uncertainty that accompanies an economic downturn—the feeling that “the party is over, and this time the economy may never recover.” Even if our own company is doing well, we see so many of our friends and customers struggling in travel, leisure, transportation, retail and other industries.

Of course, we all should know that “what goes up must come down,” and vice-versa. But when you are up the proverbial waterway without the requisite navigation aid, it’s easy to feel glum. And not for nothing, by the way—companies are cutting salaries across the board. Unemployment runs as high as 15% in some parts of the country. And although the cybersecurity job market remains strong, things are changing fast, and there are never any promises for the future.

The pessimistic economic outlook got us (Ed and Roger) talking about a previous, “this time it's different” economic collapse— the “dot-com” crash back in 2001. Back then, I (Roger) was working as a technology “fixer”—the guy you called in to help pull good companies out of bad circumstances. It was gratifying to bring them back to life, but reducing headcount was usually part of the equation and was never easy, particularly during the downturn.

It was in that context that a friend invited me to speak at a software conference held at what was then the Cypress Hotel, in Cupertino. “No need to prepare anything,” he said, “just come as you are.” I accepted without thinking. As a member of the team that launched Java at Sun Microsystems, I had routinely presented at technical conferences.

As it turned out, however, this was no technical conference–it was a job fair, offering career advice to out-of-work software engineers (some of whom I may have had a hand in putting out of work).

“What am I going to say to them?” I asked my friend, “I’m a consultant—I don’t know anything about recruiting or job hunting!”

“Yes, but you’re the busiest guy I know,” he responded, “Just share ideas on how to get back to work.”

For thirty-five minutes, I sat silently on the stage. The professional panelists before me presented successively pessimistic views of the economic future. They had professional slides with grim figures and colorful charts featuring upside-down V’s. “Nasdaq down 77%. 415,000 jobs lost within a month. Billions in market capitalization gone. Millions of jobs outsourced to India, and never coming back. Few opportunities on the horizon.”

It was really hard to watch. As time grew near to my turn to speak, I could think of just one thing:

“I have to say something positive. I can’t bear to let this close on such a dismal note!”

I was looking out at a room full of hundreds of super-smart engineers who had worked hard to get to where they were, only to have it all snatched away by the collapse of the stupid dot-com bubble, 9-11, and some accounting scandals. So much wasted talent.

But that gave me an idea!

“How many of you worked tirelessly to earn a degree in engineering, math or science?” I asked the audience. Hands shot up throughout the room.

“And how many of you actually ended up with a six figure salary for shuttling data between a web form and a database?” Nearly all still had their hands in the air, as an uneasy chuckle swirled through the auditorium.
“Look, we have been getting paid a fortune for doing trivial engineering jobs. That cannot be sustained here. Why? This is Silicon Valley! The modern integrated electronic circuit was invented 2 miles that way,” I pointed. “The concept of broadcast radio was invented 4 miles that way. Over there, it was the first microprocessor, that way it was the mouse. We were standing at innovation’s ground zero! Some important hardware or software originated in a garage in every direction. Your data-pushing job was outsourced? Good riddance, it doesn’t deserve you! Silicon Valley is for innovators, not data attendants!”

“My firm belief,” I continued, “is that some of you—not all, but some—will take advantage of this collapse to identify truly meaningful problems to solve. You will devote every ounce of your energy and intellect to solve them. You will grow companies from nothing. A few of you will succeed and hire the rest of us. It’s easy to predict this next growth cycle because Silicon Valley has always worked that way. It's not about the past jobs returning, it's about defining the new jobs in the future.”

Of course, we know what happened. America recovered from the dot com bust because innovators went out and created new companies to solve new problems. Personal computers became smaller, and cheaper. Phones got smart. Open source, cloud computing and SaaS drove digital transformation. And cybersecurity matured to protect all of those new ideas and assets.

Shortly after that conference, I followed my own advice. With a few partners, I founded Fortify Software to solve a problem that mathematical proofs implied was unsolvable. We did it anyway. It sounded like a hard problem to solve and so we solved it “well enough.” That’s how Ed and I met as he was in charge of security for AT&T, Fortify’s first commercial customer.

Recalling that story got us talking. Ed puts it this way:

“Roger, that sounds just like today! I see it every day with my clients and it is what I teach my students. The way forward is not everyone going back to what they did before. It is to go out and find hard new problems to solve, and then to do the best work of your life. This is true in cybersecurity and every other industry. There is no shortage of big technology problems left to solve—cybercrime, health, environment, economy, transportation—take your pick of them!”

Things may look pretty glum right now. Surely there are more dark days ahead for the economy. But that’s why entrepreneurs, engineers, business leaders, and anyone else feeling despair should get busy, with or without a job. The world needs smart, driven people with the courage to work on problems that matter.

A great example of this happened following the financial panic of 1873, when Jay Cooke and Company, the money behind the transcontinental railroad, declared bankruptcy. Cooke took 18,000 businesses down with it and set off what is now known as the “Long Depression.” During that dark decade, a young teacher of the deaf named Alexander Graham Bell refocused his efforts to understand the transmission of sound. Within a few years, the product of that young man’s best work established an industry which employs millions and connects billions around the globe today.

We understand that not everyone in cybersecurity has the drive and courage to be an entrepreneur. But for those with the will to do so, we recommend taking a long look at the real security problems companies and individuals face across the globe.

In our next article, we will offer up our suggestions for a few of today’s “impossible” cybersecurity problems and provide some real life examples of individuals who have embarked on their “best work”.

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Tags: covid-19

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