Insurgent Disrupters

Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, offers a computer age grand tour: from the tentative beginnings of the computer age in the 1830s all the way forward to Wikipedia and the Internet. This book is chock full of anecdotes about the inventors, theorists, mechanics, activists, and gurus who, step by step, created the modern digital world. It’s a case history in insurgent disruption.

Isaacson describes famous figures—from Ada, Countess of Lovelace, who published the first computer program in 1843, to Larry Page and Sergei Brin, who founded Google. But this book’s real strength lies in accounts of obscure figures whose pioneering work, often forgotten, made everything from cellphones to supercomputers possible. Isaacson skillfully chronicles the complexity of digital innovation and highlights some rules that parallel our own studies of paradigm-shifting breakthroughs in The Underdog Advantage: How to Use Insurgent Strategy to Put Your Business on Top (McGraw-Hill).

The first rule of innovation is that no one single person does it—because it takes a widely diverse team to succeed. Innovation, in fact, happens inside teams; it’s not the province of solitary geniuses. Our first corporate client, Steve Jobs, may have been brilliant, but he really didn’t invent the Macintosh. He didn’t even originate the Macintosh project; Jef Raskin started it. A team of remarkable technicians, engineers, and software writers did the actual work. Of course, Jobs was an extraordinary visionary, who knew what he wanted and knew how to direct his team to get there. But it was the Macintosh team that turned this disruptive technology into reality.

And these teams are remarkably diverse. For example, the computer pioneers’ honor roll includes an extraordinarily wide assortment of characters from an amazing variety of backgrounds. In the nineteenth century, there was the team of Charles Babbage, polymath and inventor; Joseph Clement, the genius mechanic from the wrong side of the class divide; and Ada, Countess of Lovelace, who figured out what a computer could do and how to program it. Babbage and Clement, history shows, never actually built the complex calculating machine that Babbage had designed, but the plans and fragments they left behind influenced later innovators; and Ada’s writings are still read today.

Another remarkably diverse computer team helped defeat the Nazis. During World War II, mathematician Alan Turing helped design Colossus, the first all-electronic partially programmable computer, as part of the project to break the German codes. And the computer and code-breaking teams included mathematicians, engineers, electronics experts, classics professors, linguists, chess champions, and crossword puzzle experts.

Perhaps the strangest team consisted of Lee Felsenstein, an electrical engineer, community organizer, and war protester, who got together with political activist Fred Moore and engineer Gordon French to start the Homebrew Computer Club on March 5, 1975. At subsequent meetings of the club, two young computer hobbyists, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, demonstrated their latest invention: the Apple I. “Without computer clubs,” Wozniak later admitted, “there would probably be no Apple computers.”

The second rule of innovation is that success is all about who sees an opportunity and follows through. When Steve Jobs visited Xerox’s research facility in 1979, he was impressed by the powerful graphic interface technology the scientists had invented—and astonished that Xerox was making so little use of it. Jobs and the Macintosh team developed and extended this technology and integrated it into the rest of the Macintosh project. And the rest is history: in 1984, the Mac set the ease-of-use standards for personal computers.

Bill Gates, for his part, also saw the value of the Xerox graphic interface. In 1985, Microsoft introduced Windows, an operating system that incorporated the new technology and that, in its current version, has a 90% market share on personal computers. Xerox, by contrast, never did much with its brilliant graphics interface—at present, Xerox computers can only be found in computer history books and in YouTube videos.

The third rule of innovation is to watch out for the wild cards. For example, no one predicted that Linus Torvald, along with thousands of volunteers, would one day create Linux—the free, open-source operating system that is now, according to Isaacson, on “more hardware platforms…than any other operating system.” Linux, in fact, is used today on laptops, phones, GPS units, digital recorders, musical keyboards, televisions, car navigation systems, and many more devices. And this innovation breakthrough isn’t just for consumer applications, either; 485 of the 500 most powerful supercomputers in the world run on some form of Linux.

These three rules of innovation—deploy diverse teams, seize and follow through on opportunities, and don’t be afraid to take on “wild card” risks—aren’t limited to computer engineers or programmers. Today, in any field, it takes more than one person to make dramatic improvements or to branch out into new and disruptive territories. And to really make things happen, insurgents and disrupters need different people with different specialties and characteristics. As Isaacson observes: you need both “visionaries, who can generate ideas, with operating managers, who can execute them.”

Innovation may look big, complicated, and scary when you’re reading about the great inventors and heroes of the past. But here’s where Isaacson’s book helps show you exactly how the process works and dispels the impression that you have to be a genius to participate in it. Isaacson’s book demonstrates that innovation is a process that happens step by step, with contributions from many team members; it’s a game everyone can play. So join an innovation team, or create your own, and start disrupting like an Insurgent.


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