Eric Schmidt, Steve Ballmer and Chris Hughes were among the "Mastermind" speakers at Gartner Symposium. Here are the highlights from their jam-packed Q&A sessions:
Chris Hughes: "Facebook was very much a social project"
You're not a coder, you're not a technologist. What appealed to you about Facebook?
"I think defining a technologist is difficult in 2013. I've always been fascinated by technology, but I've never coded or had a compunction to break down a laptop and put it back together. At Facebook we were experimenting with ways to share information and communicate. In 2004, no one was really sharing information on the Internet. It was still taboo. We thought we could create a paradigm where people were willing to share information about themselves with a trusted community, and to find out what their friends and family were doing. It was very much a social project."
Why would anyone leave Facebook just when it was taking off? You went into politics to work with a candidate who wasn't considered a front-runner.
"A lot of youth were for Obama. I really wanted to spend as much of my time and energy on making a better world - making the world more just. I think Facebook is an incredibly important tool to move us forward on that path. Working directly in politics and using the tools that we have just feels more natural to me."
You have a Liberal Arts background. With the increasing emphasis on STEM Education, are we losing something?
"I think we're at risk of losing something really important. I think the world needs more engineers because there will only be more technical innovation. But we need engineers to have English 101 and the history of Greek civilization. The Liberal Arts play several roles in helping people lead a fulfilling life of curiosity and big ideas. But if we're talking about them in the context of organizational efficiency, one of the things they do is cultivate a sense of empathy and help build the people skills that are key. We're hiring at The New Republic and I would be much more interested in seeing a resume from an engineer who was really good at her job but who also majored in music or art, because it would signal to me an ability to do several things really well - not only to build but to communicate and share."
Steve Ballmer: "The new dream for Microsoft!"
What's the new dream for Microsoft?
"What we're really talking about is a new world. People focus on the words we use - "devices and services," which addresses the "how" - but it's really about enabling people to do and achieve the things that are most valuable in life. We just see so much more potential, whether that's in the device that's in your pocket, on your desk, in your home, on your wall, around your eyes, whatever the case may be. What are those important activities which have yet to be automated and improved, whether that's in our professional lives or our personal lives? We talk about about enabling the things that our customers value most, and doing that with the next generation of devices and services."
Is there a particular use case that you see in the future that crystallizes this idea?
"There is - paper and pencil! Seriously. Take a school setting. Or a business setting - have we really re-done the way people conduct themselves through digital technologies in a way that enhances value? It's still more convenient and fail-safe to take notes with paper and pencil. It's about the way we choose to participate in these interactions that are fundamental to the way we work and live. I'm not saying it's all about notes or it's all about meetings, but you could write down five or six of these things and say, 'Until we knock these off, we sure have our hands full'."
"Think about the ways in which we conduct everyday tasks. Do you realize how bad it is? Take a personal example. Say you want to find the best doctor to treat a disease that a family member has. That's typically a four-week search session. It's not easy."
Thinking about the One Microsoft strategy, how do you get the company aligned to it?
"You could say it grew up as a company since about 1982 trying to subdivide everything into small manageable problems. When you do that you get agility, but you're going to have to build in a way to work together again to broaden your footprint. The number one thing we're hearing from our customers is, "We want you to put it all together." It's about putting these things together, solving these problems in a consistent and coherent way. That really comes through loud and clear from our enterprise customers."
Eric Schmidt: "We like to make big bets"
Google seems to have an interest in anything that touches a network. What industry is most ripe for innovation?
"All of them. There's a lot of evidence now that almost every business can be made more efficient and more creative by applying a small number of software programmers and a little bit of big data and analytics to make them more efficient and deliver services better. All of the manufacturers that I'm aware of are moving to much more customization - built to order, built for you. My view is that any industry that doesn't have software people embedded inside of it is going to lag the others."
Can you tell us about Calico?
"We announced a large fund to invest in research into aging and longer-term things. This is very much hard-core research to figure out the contributors that really cause us to expire. How do we make our older lives healthy and happy? We're just beginning. We're not at the product stage. The good news is that Google has quite a bit of cash on its balance sheet, so we can make these kinds of bets. Not all of them work out, but I'm sure we will attract the top people in this."
It's interesting that you used the word "bet." Do you consider these forays something you may need to back out of?
"We forget that innovation is always risky. We always assume that the status quo will never change. But look at brand after brand - there are new things in market that didn't exist five years ago. There's constant innovation, and along with that comes the possibility of failure. Sergey one day proved mathematically that you want to take risks with no more than 10 percent of your assets because you need the other 90 working on the core and the extended. These bets are adjacent; ones that we think matter."
"One of the guidelines from Larry and Sergey is to make big bets that affect large swaths of issues. We don't want to do little bets that matter to a few people. I would argue that aging is a classic example, along with transportation. Transportation is a mess. We can't build the infrastructure - especially in cities outside the U.S. - to keep up with shifts in population. That problem needs to get solved."
Health care is data-driven. Are there other examples of data-driven industries that need to be changed?
"Education is an obvious example - it's ripe for many new experiments. Maybe you don't learn as well when you're sitting in a seat all day. Maybe you learn differently. Now we can run experiments. I'm on the board of the Khan Academy. If you have teenage kids, you should have a look at this. Connectivity gives us the opportunity not only to try new experiments but to measure them - what a concept! - and see what works best."
"In healthcare, the promise of personal health records is just the beginning of a medical platform. Several startups are working with transdermal patches that monitor what's going on with your body and send that data to your phone because they're wifi-enabled. Your phone calls your doctor, your doctor calls you back and says "get to the hospital."
Doesn't that make you feel queasy? You're trusting your health of the system
"If it's a choice between getting a phone call from my doctor and dying, I'll take the phone call. And at some level we trust the system already. One of the statistics about banks was that one-quarter to one-third of their customers would never trust an ATM. Remember that? Today, most people trust ATMs and the credit card system. While it's true that the Internet of everything exposes privacy and rights issues, it's enormously valuable to humans to have that kind of knowledge and help and monitoring."