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Walking Down Memory Lane to See the Future

Updated: May 25, 2021

By Ulises Pabón

This is the book that ignited my interest in electronics. I can't remember how old I was when I first laid my hands on it but I must have been in my pre-teens. I've hung on to it since. It was published in 1954 so it's probably the oldest first-edition book I have in my library!

There's a statement on page124 that carries an important lesson. I invite you to read the paragraph that accompanies the following illustration and see if you can find it.

The hidden gem is towards the bottom of the paragraph. It reads: "In some instances, transistors will replace electron tubes; in others, transistors and tubes will be partners."

We can't blame the author for making the understatement of the century. He's writing this in 1954! Truth is, though, that transistors, integrated circuits, and later, microprocessors KILLED electron tubes; forget about "being partners". To be fair, they did work together until 2008. That was the last year that a CRT TV was massed produced. CRT stands for Cathode-Ray Tube. If you ever owned a CRT TV or a CRT monitor for your computer, you certainly had a device where transistors were partnering with an electron tube. But that was then and this is now. Today, you might need to visit a museum or find a musician with an audio amplifier powered by tubes to see one.

For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, here's a picture of a couple of tubes next to a bare 80386 chip from my days at Intel. The chip is encapsulated inside a commemorative plexiglass paperweight issued in 1985, the year the chip launched. That tiny square, smaller than a dime, holds 275,000 transistors.

For comparison's sake, Apple's recently released M1 chip holds 16 billion transistors. Mind-boggling!

But I digress. Back to the lesson. What's so special about Morgan's statement? Let me illustrate by paraphrasing him in the following examples:

  1. In some instances, MP3 files will replace vinyl records; in others, MP3 files and vinyl records will be partners.

  2. In some instances, podcast audio will replace radio; in others, podcast audio and radio will be partners.

  3. In some instances, on-demand movies will replace cinema; in others, on-demand movies and cinema will be partners.

  4. In some instances, electric cars will replace fossil fuel cars; in others, electric cars and fossil fuel cars will be partners.

  5. In some instances, blockchain distributed ledgers will replace banks; in others, blockchain distributed ledgers and banks will be partners.

  6. In some instances, lab-grown meat will replace regular meat; in others, lab-grown meat and regular meat will be partners.

You get the point. Substitute your favorite technologies - emergent and mainstream - and complete the sentence. Realize, then, that given enough time, there will be no partnering! The emerging technology will prevail. Period. That's the lesson!

This is tough to swallow. We usually overestimate the impact of technology in the short term and underestimate its impact in the long term. As I go over the list, I can hear myself thinking: "Do you mean to tell me that banks will disappear? No way! That lab-grown meat will substitute the real stuff? Never! Fossil-fuel cars will vanish? Not in my lifetime!"

We usually overestimate the impact of technology in the short team and underestimate its impact in the long term.

Here's the challenge. If you lead a company, a business unit, or a department, you are tasked with creating the future. You respond to today's stakeholders but you owe yourself to tomorrow's. A leader's job is to build the future. We do so by instilling in our organizations a work culture that welcomes change, craves experimentation, and enjoys learning. We do so by opening the organization to new developments and by investing in new capabilities. Our job is not to lessen people's worries by discounting threats. It's to heighten their preparedness and enable them to turn threats into opportunities.

In a nutshell, we might not be around when an emerging technology topples the current mainstream technology, yet we need to lead as if we will be. And that might be the most important lesson of all.

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