I spent last week in Las Vegas attending a technology event that I go to every year. Now Las Vegas is absolutely the city of my nightmares and it certainly hasn’t improved in the 12 months since I was last there – far more police on the streets, more evidence in homelessness and a distinct pall of cannabis smoke hanging over the city point to some economic and social headwinds looming.
But while Vegas isn’t my idea of a good time, it was interesting to hang out with 50,000 of my closest friends and see what this particular technology powerhouse has done in the last 12 months. Spoiler alert: it’s all about AI. Enough said.
Anyway, a couple of experiences I had on one of the days made me think about people and their importance. As is my usual modus operandi, I got up early on one of the mornings and went for a run. When I got back to my hotel I turned on the TV and was faced by a video of Elon Musk’s speech at a recent conference. In said interview musk was asked about the backlash from advertisers on the Twitter platform he owns after some recent antisemitic posts he has personally done. Advertisers are leaving the platform in droves worried about being seen to side with such actions.
When asked about his views on advertisers leaving the platform, Elon Musk in his own inimitable way, said that they can go f*** themselves. Bear in mind that Musk spent over $40 billion buying Twitter, and seems to be intent on setting fire to that huge pile of money. Of course, the rumour is that he’s currently using ketamine as his drug of choice so maybe that was doing the talking. But whatever the reason for his ranting, he seems pretty crazed.
Notwithstanding his craziness and without wanting to get into an argument about whether Musk is or is not a genius, it is fair to say that he has done a hell of a lot of his career. From PayPal to SpaceX, from Tesla to the Boring Company. Musk really is quite a pretty big deal and has built some huge companies and created immense wealth (as well as the aforementioned destruction of a fair amount of it as well).
But my opining today isn’t about how successful he is, as a business leader. Rather it is about whether or not one should be assessed on those metrics, or on a far simpler metric, that of being a good human being.
This was cast into stark comparison a little later in the day when I met up with someone that I had first met the year before at the same conference. Shikha Verma is an engineer and an executive with the company. Last year I saw her present in a keynote in which she was announcing a new product that her team had been creating. I commented on social media, how great it was to see a woman up on the keynote stage, something that is unusual in this industry.
Anyway, Shikha reached out and thanked me for my best wishes, and we agreed to meet up for a coffee. We did so and then proceeded to talk about everything other than work. I found out about her two daughters. What her husband does for a living. And I told her about my family and plans for some hiking trips when I got home.
12 months on and I met up with Shikha for a coffee again. We talked very little about work. Technology is interesting at all. But really it’s far less impactful than the stuff we do that is a really important: family and the like. I got an update on what was happening with her family and she got one on mine.
After she left to get on with her busy schedule for the day I carried on wandering around the expo floor thinking a little bit about the comparisons between the sort of person Elon is and Shikha. Now, I’m pretty sure that she is herself an amazing engineer. You don’t get to where she is within a company like she works for without being incredibly smart, dedicated and talented. But none of that stuff really matters.
In 100 years, no one’s going to remember whether the database that you created or the E-commerce solution that you changed the colours on was a success or not. People will have long forgotten there was this micro-blogging platform called Twitter that allowed you to send messages of 140 characters and that it rose, and fell, in short succession.
What might be remembered are the people you brought into the world and how positive of a contribution they made to society. Now I’m not suggesting we should be defeatist and give up on having big vocational dreams since nothing really matters. After all, we all find our own individual purpose and meaning in our lives. All I’m saying is that Elon may be doing big and important work, but I still think the world would be better with more folks like Shikha than a bunch more people like him.