Boiling a Frog


I’ve been a bit distracted this past week catching up on work, getting back into the classroom, and keeping up with physical therapy for my new knee, therefore I am reposting a piece that I wrote almost one year ago that was originally titled, “Maybe the Kids Aren’t Alright.”

Yesterday, I was able to venture out on my own for the first time in more than 3 weeks because of my surgery. I settle into a nearby lunch spot and opened the Saturday WSJ and the lead article was, “Apps Send User Secrets to Facebook.” A few days earlier I turned on the news only to hear that Google shipped a product that included a hidden microphone, but neglected to indicate it on the packaging. To quote Vince Lombardi, “what they hell is going on here?”

I am amazed that the issues of personal privacy and monopoly power of some tech companies isn’t a 2020 Presidential Race talking point. But then I have to remind myself that I live in America where even during the Revolutionary War 1/3 of the people were for cutting ties with England, 1/3 were against, and 1/3 simply didn’t care. It’s not a campaign issue because most Americans either don’t care, or don’t fully comprehend the potential negative impact related to all your personal data being available to to companies or governments. It reminds me of the fable describing a frog being slowly boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.

A lot of trust has been put into the hands of very young founders, some with the power to avoid being easily fired by their Boards of Directors. They all profess to wanting to do a better job of regulating themselves, but will they without a set of rules to follow? Europe seems to be years ahead of the U.S. in terms of defining the guardrails, perhaps because they have experience with the dangers of personal information being in the hands of a few bad characters.

Maybe the Kids Aren’t Alright (originally published on LinkedIn April 2018)

In light of recent events in the tech world with companies such as Theranos, Facebook, and Uber garnering less than attractive headlines for a variety of avoidable foibles, I was reminded of an essay by Francis Bacon titled, "Youth and Age." I was first exposed to the essay when I attended the memorial service for Bruce D. Henderson, the founder of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), back in the early 90s. I've kept it in the top drawer of my desk for all these years. BCG has grown to become a successful global business, perhaps because it continues to operate under the premise set forth by Bacon and employed by Mr. Henderson. Following is an excerpt; highlighting added by me.

“Young men are fitter to invent than to judge; fitter for execution than for counsel; and fitter for new projects than for settled business. For the experience of age, in things that fall within the compass of it, directeth them; but in new things, abuseth them. The errors of young men are the ruin of business; but the errors of aged men amount but to this, that more might have been done, or sooner.

Young men, in the conduct and manage of actions, embrace more than they can hold; stir more than they can quiet; fly to the end, without consideration of the means and degrees; pursue some few principles which they have chanced upon absurdly; care not to innovate, which draws unknown inconveniences; use extreme remedies at first; and that which doubleth all errors, will not acknowledge or retract them; like an unready horse, that will neither stop nor turn. Men of age object too much, consult too long, adventure too little, repent too soon, and seldom drive business home to the full period, but content themselves with a mediocrity of success. Certainly it is good to compound employments of both; for that will be good for the present, because the virtues of either age may correct the defects of both; and good for succession, that young men may be learners, while men in age are actors; and, lastly, good for extern accidents, because authority followeth old men, and favour and popularity youth.”

There are lessons to be learned from the old masters such as Francis Bacon and Bruce Henderson that can be brought to bear in today's startup environment. Business is and always will be a complex and evolving web of strategic challenges in an uncertain environment. The young posses the knowledge and energy to innovate and disrupt but when asked to govern themselves it results in something that looks more like Lord of the Flies than a functioning business. It may be time for investors to enforce some balance not only at the board level but on management teams as well.

Clearly the kids aren't alright. We simply can't have CEOs of public companies behaving like children; lying to investors, verbally abusing employees, and joking on social media about bankruptcy.