Androids vs. Dinosaurs

By Lane Rettig, Wharton MBA 2014, School of Arts and Sciences 2014 (Lauder Institute); Co-Founder, Seratis. He spent the Fall 2013 semester at Wharton ǀ San Francisco.

The United States, a wealthy and technologically advanced country, has divided into two camps: Androids and Dinosaurs. The Androids live in California, New York, and Boston, and in a handful of bubble communities such as Austin and Seattle. They use smartphones with the latest apps, drive Teslas, eat “ethnic” food and think they’re pretty smart. In fact, life in Androidville is brutally meritocratic: the better solution always wins because, well, it’s better, right? So why not?

As for the Dinosaurs? Well, that’s pretty much everyone else. They’re the normal people, with families, and jobs, and more important things to worry about than whether they’re running the latest iOS version or how quickly their hardware will become obsolete.

Here’s the catch: there are a lot more Dinosaurs than there are Androids.

And here’s what most Androids don’t get about Dinosaurs: they hate change. It’s not that they haven’t bought an iPhone or a Tesla because they don’t get it, can’t afford it, or aren’t smart enough to use it. In fact, the Dinosaurs are a pretty smart bunch. It’s that they hate change because, well, things are pretty good the way they are, right? So why change them?

The Dinosaurs aren’t just country bumpkins. They include entire swathes of brilliant people. Doctors, some of the smartest and hardest working people in the country. Manufacturers, the ones building snazzy cars and enormous jet planes. And the Armed Forces, protecting us from threats near and far. Many Dinosaurs are conservative by necessity. Doctors embrace technology: pharmaceuticals, medical devices and procedures save millions of lives every year, and improve the quality of life for countless more. The resounding motto of Silicon Valley is, “Move fast and break things.” But this motto “does not apply to healthcare.” Think of what happens when a medical device, a jet plane, or a military helicopter malfunctions. Real people die real deaths.

If Dinosaurs are just a little too cautious, a little too unwilling to embrace even modest change, Androids are too fast to dismiss them as backwards, obstructionist, or just plain dumb. Through founding a healthcare technology company and through meeting visionaries such as Jon Sobel, WG’07, I’ve come to understand that we Androids are really the exception that proves the rule.

Sobel should know. As co-founder and CEO of Sight Machine, an Industrial Internet company based half in Silicon Valley and half in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he’s been working to bridge Androids and Dinosaurs his entire career. Jon’s company employs engineers in Silicon Valley and Ann Arbor who write brilliant video processing algorithms to help traditional manufacturers in places like Michigan reduce errors and improve product quality. Sobel visited Wharton ǀ San Francisco to tell us about these two worlds.

“I would encourage you to soak up with an anthropologist’s lens what’s going on here,” he advised. “Every industry, every geography has its strengths and its shortcomings. Soak up what’s cool but don’t drink the Kool-aid.”

The hacking culture of Silicon Valley is great, Sobel explains, but “hacking is not about robustness, it’s about coming up with cool stuff.” Translating “cool stuff” into a robust, reliable, scalable product—and then convincing conservative Midwest executives to adopt these products—requires a lot more than technical competence. It requires vision, superb attention to detail, experience, and the ability to “speak two vocabularies,” as Sobel puts it. His customers don’t use PowerPoint, aren’t impressed by the cloud or open source, and only care about one thing: “Does it work?”

What does this mean for us aspiring Wharton entrepreneurs? For starters, give the Dinosaurs a break: they are conservative for a reason and you won’t convince them to adopt your whizz-bang new technology without putting yourself in their shoes and understanding the reasons for their aversion to change. More importantly, there are absolutely enormous business opportunities for those who can bridge two or more worlds, bringing modern technology to bear in traditionally conservative industries like healthcare, government, education, and manufacturing, in a scalable, robust fashion. This is what my cofounder and I are working on at Seratis.

I agree wholeheartedly with Sobel’s parting thought: “the future belongs to people who can knit together multiple worlds.” Learn to speak both Dinosaur and Android, and you’ll do well.

bio_photo_bw croppedBio: Lane Rettig (WG’14/G’14) is a dual-degree Wharton/Lauder student in the Lauder Chinese track. Prior to Wharton, he worked as a software developer at D. E. Shaw & Co., a New York-based hedge fund, in their New York and Hong Kong offices. Lane was co-chair of the 2012-2013 Wharton Business Plan Competition, and this summer he and a classmate co-founded a healthcare technology startup, Seratis (http://www.seratis.com/), which recently graduated from the DreamIt Health accelerator program in Philadelphia.