We recently sat down with John Cook, co-founder of Seattle-based tech publication GeekWire, to share a couple beers and talk all things technology — from A.I. to the future of transportation, and what it takes to build a successful company culture.
What has been the biggest piece of progress by the tech industry over the last few years?
Oh my gosh, let's start with something that dang involved!
I don't know if it's the most progress that’s been made, but I would say artificial intelligence. It gets into a huge debate about the impact of technology on our society, our brains, everything. There has been a lot of technological innovation in that arena, but it's a bit scary to think about what an A.I.-based world would look like. While there's been a lot of progress, I wouldn't say it's always positive progress because we're not sure how this is all going to play out.
Yes or No: Is A.I. scary?
I go back and forth on this. I'm always trying to look at things with a bit of a historical perspective, knowing that we've gone through waves of innovation historically. Yes, it does change things and oftentimes displaces workers or people. But we tend to keep marching forward in a positive manner.
I'm not saying it will, but A.I. could represent this next wave of technological innovation. We don't know what's going to happen, which makes it scary because the technology is getting better. It's getting there. We have a bot attached to us already, because we all carry phones that are our instant encyclopedia, our transportation system, our guide to the entire world, really. So, we're already relying on technology in this way, and it’s a very integral part of how we live and operate.
I guess I'm middle of the road on whether it's scary or not. I lean a little towards not as scary as some of the alarmists, who raise really important issues. But I think we need to have some regulation and carefully monitor how this develops.
Do you think A.I. will be able to solve problems that we're not able to solve?
Some technologies being developed are really solving human problems. If I step back to your original question, I think the technology community sometimes gets lumped into this world where it's not so much about solving people's problems; it's a lot of fuzzy stuff. Solving your photo management issue, or getting from point A to point B.
These are real problems, but at the end of the day, I look at technology in a much broader scope, like the intersection of cloud computing and life sciences, coming together to crunch data and potentially using A.I. to solve a problem or treat a disease like cancer. This is within our grasp, and it’s going to have a massive impact.
We’re seeing progress towards real change happening in people's lives by using technology and innovation to solve real, hard problems.
So that's the stuff still giving me hope about the use of technology. Not all the frilly stuff that gets written about a lot more. You know, buying a new pair of tennis shoes on Amazon is cool, but the real interesting stuff in technology, at least for me, is how it can really advance people's lives.
Are there any industries that haven’t progressed as much as expected, technology-wise?
Transportation is pretty interesting. You can see the potential benefits if it does take root. But I also think it's going to take longer than what people imagine right now. I mean, there's a lot of buzz about self-driving cars and autonomous vehicles, and it ties into the A.I. discussion.
At what point do you think we have “arrived” with transportation?
It's tough to say. It's going to happen in different stages. I don't think I could say by what year 50% of the vehicles on the road will be autonomous. There's going to have to be some major policy changes for this to occur, so it’s just going to take longer than we think. But I will say there are changing mindsets, and this is why it takes a long time.
I mean, I'm 45, so I'm on the tail end of the internet generation. I look at my personal driving habits now, and I've actually changed. Living in a city with a family, we used to have two cars to do certain things, but now we really only need one car. I’m personally already accepting the idea that we're going to have a different type of transportation system. There are all these other options available.
Shifting gears (pun intended); has social media changed how tech companies approach their online influence?
Absolutely. Every company has had to change because of the power of social media. There are companies doing it quite well and others that are still trying to figure it out and catch up to his new world. But every company is now their own source of news and content and information to share with their audience. They’re all in the storytelling business now, and social media has changed the game in terms of how people tell their stories.
There's no better example of somebody using social media to craft a narrative and disrupt media than the current president. And I don't see it going away. As a person who works in the media journalism arena, it's somewhat disconcerting. At the same time, it's the world we live in and we need to figure out how to do high-quality journalism that still resonates with the community.
Lucky enough at GeekWire, our audience is made up of smart people. So, I think we have a built-in advantage because there's a high percentage of our readers that understand the difference between a marketing message coming from a company, pure propaganda, fake news, and what is true, fact-based journalism.
In today’s society, we almost need courses to teach kids how to sort and process information to find what appears to be the truth, because kids are going to grow up in a world where they're just inundated with different messages on a lot of different topics. It’s going to be extremely challenging for the next generation.
It's part of our responsibility as journalists to share the importance of journalism and why it needs to be done in a certain manner. That's not to say you can't tell stories in creative ways and you're locked in the past, or that it has to be printed in a magazine or newspaper to have resonance. That's certainly not the case with GeekWire, where we tell stories in a lot of different ways. But it does mean certain tenets of journalism don't go away just because the platforms have changed.
In this world of social transparency, how much power does company culture have nowadays? Is culture really a measure of a company's success?
It's really hard to define.
Let's take the Amazon story, since we're here in Seattle, and the New York Times piece that came out about their “bruising” workplace culture. I think the piece had an impact. I have some problems with some of the reporting on that story and the journalistic approach they took. But overall, it was rooted in a lot of fact that we know from reporting on the company and hearing stories about them.
I'm glad that story was done to expose aspects of the culture I think are somewhat problematic. Amazon's such a mysterious company. Their culture is so unusual—they actually use the word peculiar to describe themselves. But trying to figure out why people are happy or not at Amazon is challenging.
The basis of the story accurately described a lot of the culture we hear about at Amazon. It’s a hard charging, take no prisoners, ruthless culture. We saw this manifest itself most recently in the RFP they've put out for their second headquarters. It's a brilliant move and a ruthless move at the same time. That's Amazon. They are both brilliant and ruthless.
I guess that speaks to our capitalistic system; sometimes that's what it takes to get ahead. But not every tech company operates that way.
Amazon’s culture sits apart from other company cultures, and from the tech community as well. I think the entire industry gets somewhat typecast based on the activities of the big behemoths. To Amazon's credit, they have been trying to at least change the perception. It's unclear to me if it's a cultural change or just an appearance. I don't know. We'll see.
But, these giant companies who’ve received bad press about their cultures are still able to hire top talent.
Well, they have a lot of money. At the end of the day, culture's great and I believe in it, but people have other motivations. Usually, the biggest motivator for people is how much they can get paid. Companies with market values of near $500 billion can throw money at folks to come over and work in a place that might not be right for them.
I've got a lot of very smart friends that have gone to Amazon and they thrive. They actually like the culture. It fits well with their personality. I've also had very good friends go there and think it's the absolute worst place they've ever worked. They can't believe anyone works there.
These big companies have been successful in part because they can throw a lot of money at problems, and hire a lot of top talent for a lot of money, and for some folks it works well.
What's the most unexpectedly difficult parts about running a company?
It's so cliché, but it’s managing and recruiting high quality talent. As a reporter, I was so frustrated when I asked all these entrepreneurs and startups that question, and they would all say the same thing. Then we started running our own company and, yeah, it's the number one thing.
It's not any tougher in Seattle than any other tech center. Finding, retaining, and inspiring high-quality talent to be a part of what you're trying to do in a small organization isn’t easy. It's a challenge we continue to struggle with.
Todd Bishop and I are the two co-founders, and we’re six years in now with GeekWire. We actually brought the team together for the first time at the end of last year for an offsite retreat, and we sat down and talked about who we are. We came up with a list of our cultural values from that offsite and it was a really helpful exercise for us.
Those values are helpful to figure out who we want to work for us, and who's doing well in the organization. At the same time, it's still not easy finding that talent. I think any company you talk to would probably say that's the number one struggle. No matter if you're small like us or big like an Amazon.
What are you working on that you’re most excited about?
I'm more on the business and events side, so I'm largely focused on our GeekWire
Summit, which is coming up in October. I spend a lot of my time coordinating the content and speakers around events to make sure we've got a great lineup of speakers. We're pretty thrilled with this summit. We've got a great lineup, including Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, Kevin Johnson, CEO of Starbucks, John Collison, co-founder of Stripe, and Toni Reid, the head of Amazon's Alexa team.
On the editorial side, we've been riveted by the Amazon news about the second headquarters, and that's a story we really want to own and put our special take on. I know Amazon has come up a lot in this conversation, but they're such a fascinating, interesting company for us to track, and because they're in our backyard we have special insights and opportunities to tell compelling stories around them.
At the same time, there's a lot of other cool stuff going on. Aerospace and science is a big area for us. We spend a lot of time covering cloud technology, which—for the real geeks out there—is the nitty gritty stuff that makes everything work. So that's an expansion area for us. Looking ahead, I get excited about other areas where I think we can expand our brand and expand the types of coverage that happens under the GeekWire umbrella.
I mean, we have a pretty broad definition of geeks or technology. It's one of the reasons why we cover everything from sports, to science, to aerospace, to cloud tech, to health and life sciences. There are massive stories happening every single day in each of those areas, and we want to have the best beat reporters on each of them to explain them, provide perspective, and do some original reporting and breaking news on all of those topics.
From a business standpoint, it's not that complex. It's age old tactics in journalism, rooted in a new platform.
About GeekWire: GeekWire is a fast-growing, national technology news site with strong roots in the Seattle region and a large audience of loyal, tech-savvy readers around the globe, who follow the site for breaking news, expert analysis and unique insights into the technology industry.
About John Cook: John Cook, Co-Founder of GeekWire, has been covering the technology beat in the Pacific Northwest for more than a decade. He writes about startups, entrepreneurs, mobile technologies, social networking, online commerce, geek culture and many other topics.
Read more conversations with smart operations leaders in our Two Beers interview series.