In order to solve society's greatest challenges we need a workforce that is more diverse in life experiences, has overcome adversity, and is more broadly skilled rather than overspecialized.
One of the things that impressed me the most in the new Star Wars movie, besides the quality of the acting, was the diversity of the cast and the roles they play in the success of their mission. Rey, the main protagonist of the movie, is a scavenger with a diverse set of skills, a pilot, a mechanic, a fighter with the force of the Jedi, unbeknownst to her, but all of these elements are critical to her defeating the First Order. Finn, also known as Stormtrooper FN-2187, is another protagonist who uses his background to help Han Solo and Chewbacca destroy the Starkiller Base. If Finn had been just a Rebel fighter, he would never been able to rescue Rey or destroy the First Order base. It's the diverse background and experience of Rey and Finn that ensure their success.
Last month I sat in on inspiring chat on diversity and inclusion between two great technology leaders, Cisco's CEO Chuck Robbins and Xerox' CEO Ursula Burns. Ursula shared a great perspective that when we exclude others we end up with a small group of people with limited points of view, where there are just too few of these people to solve all of the massive problems facing the world. Or to put it another way, as Albert Einstein once said: "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."
We need diverse opinions around us, because as humans we are stuck with our own confirmation biases. Even the best business programs fall victim to this if they have the same types of elite individuals teaching, sharing the same background and experience with the same consulting firms or same business roles. It is not just business where this is an issue. Junot Diaz, one of the best modern writers has described the pitfalls of an elite creative writing graduate experience in the New Yorker. I earned my MFA at the University of San Francisco and while we still had a mostly Caucasian male faculty and student body there was significant representation from all genders and sexual orientations. Most importantly, we had a diverse reading list that included a high number of books from writers of underrepresented backgrounds. USF students were widely encouraged to embrace diversity and share their unique experiences, something that Junot Diaz had clearly not experienced in his elite writing program.
Great education is not limited to a small number of elite institutions, nor is the Caucasian male group the only one to contribute great minds or workers. I have worked with a very diverse contingent throughout my career and have volunteered and mentored children and adults of all backgrounds, and from my experience all one needs to succeed is to be encouraged and inspired.
People who have faced and overcome adversity are resilient. When unexpected difficulties occur they are the ones we should count on, not those born with a silver spoon.
Imagine choosing between two candidates. The first candidate has worked for the best tech companies, moving into higher positions every few years. When you interview the candidate they tell you that these companies came to them and sought them out for their talent. Sounds great, doesn't it? Now, let's look at the second candidate. They have had to take time off from work to take care of sick family members or kids, perhaps they had been laid off, maybe struggled for year or more and have had to reinvent themselves in order to reenter the workforce. Which candidate would you choose?
Our minds trick us into thinking the first candidate is a proven winner and is the only choice. Perhaps they are, perhaps they are so vastly talented that companies have fought over them their entire careers. Chances are, if the candidate changes companies so often, they aren't investing in their teams and wouldn't stick around for long at our company. The only thing we know for certain is that the first candidate had not faced adversity, had not overcome difficult problems, everything came to them. The second one did overcome challenges. They might not be as qualified, but I bet they would appreciate the opportunity more and be more of a team player. Not to mention, if your company faces tough times the second candidate would be the good go-to-person, while the first one would surely jump the ship as soon as the going gets tough.
The world we inhabit is incredibly complex and interrelated, and solutions to our problems require people who can understand more than a single layer. We keep trying to file everyone under a single specialist title, as if being good at one thing eliminates someone from being good at something else. As Abraham Maslow's attributed saying goes—"if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." We can look at the recent wars in Asia and Africa and the refugee crisis as caused by the lack of diverse opinions and polymaths. We've used war as our only option and ignored other solutions that should have supplemented or replaced military action.
We don't live in a vacuum. The products that we make touch people's lives in a number of different ways. With most software solutions moving to the Cloud and the world's fascination with the Internet of Things, where so many different devices and applications will be connected and integrated with each other, it makes even more sense to hire and train people skilled in different areas. A salesperson needs to be more than just good at sales, they need to understand technical capabilities of the products they are selling and how they better meet customer needs over their competitors. A marketing professional needs to not only understand the target market and what the customers want in order to craft messages to reach the right audience, but must also understand the solutions being proposed and their complexity and user experience in order to gauge how their future customers might react. And when it comes to engineers and managers of technical projects and programs, we need to understand as many different components of software and hardware systems we are building as we can, at least on a high level. No matter what small piece of software we may be developing it will need to work with many other pieces of code, applications, or hardware. If we are only really good at our own piece of the pie, our product will never work well, as it won't play nice with others. We already have very successful companies embracing polymaths, such as Google hiring people with non-technical degrees and training them for more technical roles, and Tesla hiring people who are really good at what they do no matter what their education or experience.
Think of the different products with good functionality but terrible design where the engineers seemed to have designed the products for their own use, and not the actual customers, such as Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and Blackberry phones. Compare these to the ease of the iPhone… From a security point of view, understanding different systems and how they connect to each other is an absolute must. Most of our security issues stem from developers being unaware of how their code will be integrated with other systems, such as not checking for proper input or designing a product with full access to the whole world instead of permissions to do its own little job. Think of it as developer of the Internet of Things home solution allowing a toaster to control the front door alarm instead of its own toasting.
If you still have doubts over increasing diversity in your company and rewarding polymaths, I have one word for you. INNOVATION. Technology is evolving at light speed. Companies need to have versatile workforces that can master new skills quickly. Companies need to innovate all the time to stay relevant (consider AOL, MySpace, or HP).
Can you innovate by doing the same thing over and over, even if you get really good at it? We need creative people who think outside the box, who have had diverse life experiences, who constantly challenge the status quo. I am not dismissing specialists, they have their place. We need specialists to push technical and scientific boundaries forward, but I would wager a guess than even the specialized individuals are closeted polymaths with passion for multiple things.
Now get your polymath geek out and rock this world!