What could an innovative transportation/taxi company possibly have in common with a firm that makes civil engineering software? As any Business 101 course will tell you, the rules to run a company well are marvelously universal. A greenhouse that specializes in rare orchids can learn a thing or two from a successful bakery franchise; a company that manufactures products for the sight-impaired can learn a thing or two from a company that designs vending machines. Uber Technologies Inc. operates in close to 600 cities internationally and has grown to be a significant player in less than ten years. How did it get there? Uber draws from top talent hailing from other successful start-ups to build its own unique “Brain Trust.” In an article appearing in the March 2017 issue of Entrepreneur magazine entitled “What We’ve Learned at Uber,” several executives are asked to share key take-home advice. I’ve reprinted a few comments here from the article and offered my unique spin as chief engineer at CivilGEO.
“At Uber we’re simultaneously changing transportation and food delivery and freight delivery, reminding me that it’s possible to think and act even bigger.” (Kim Fennell, business development head at Uber and former CEO and president of deCarta.) I couldn’t agree more. In computer software design, the opportunities to radically change the user experience are very real. Significant inroads have been made in the last few years in virtual engineering technology for example. This technology adds additional data layers to an engineering project, enhancing the engineer’s ability to quickly visualize alternative solution options. Software should be capable of learning what an engineer is doing, and incorporating the user’s expertise as machine learning into its knowledge base for future projects. The engineer becomes a kind of “Master of the Universe” in a video-game like 2D and 3D interactive environment. These are the kinds of changes I think are possible with civil engineering software.
Come Clean when You are at a Loss
“It’s a strength. I used to think good management always know the answers. Now I know great managers have the courage to admit what they don’t know so they can learn from the people who do.” (Wayne Ting, General Manager at Uber, cities of Northern California; former cofounder of CampusdNetwork.) I was a know-it-all teenager. This cockiness followed me to adulthood where my bravura tripped me up in some fantastically costly ways. My greatest epiphany came when I recognized I didn’t know everything! It’s powerful to honestly say, “I don’t know.” The collective intellectual wealth that comes from listening to your peers is without doubt the greatest asset we have as a company.
Be Uncompromising and Determined
“Many others will pursue the same idea as you in parallel. So how fast you move, big you bet, and relentlessly you pursue the mission of your company is likely to be the difference maker.” (Andrew Macdonald, regional GM of Uber in Southeast Asia, India, Latin America. Former founder of ShopMyClothes.) This statement smacks of evolutionary survival and defeat, but it’s all true. The game of business is, at its core, not unlike a contest to determine the fittest. Stay on task with the tenacity of a pitbull and you are bound to come out on top.
Voices to All
“This yields radical results. Giving and encouraging true ownership from everyone, be it the leaders of large teams or individual engineers, generates awe-inspiring hustle and break-through innovation.” (Aaron Schildkrout, rider/driver product head at Uber and former cofounder of HowAboutWe.com.) I’ve learned to delegate tasks and the company is stronger for it. Staff turnover diminishes and employees take charge and thrive. The people that are CivilGEO become an interdependent and cohesive unit.
“Surround yourself with people who will elevate your work. I’m always reviewing mine with other designers at the company. They push me to think differently and teach me new skills. As a result, my craft is constantly improving.” (Sarah Carole, product designer at Uber and former founder of Sidecar Stationary.) This follows from knowing what you don’t know and being honest about it. I know CivilGEO can reach new heights with the varied input from our staff (and clients). Our daily scrum meeting is a time when new ideas are hatched and debated. There’s a reason Agile software development methodology is the best tool out there. It is grounded in a constant give and take between team members.
Irrespective of the industry in question, businesses have a lot in common. And over the many decades of trial and error, certain “truths” have bubbled up to the surface. Uber executives, thanks to an interview with Entrepreneur magazine, have identified a few key and universally relevant take-homes.