The New Polymath: Q&A with Author Vinnie Mirchandani

June 16, 2010 Appirio

One of our favorite bloggers, Vinnie Mirchandani (@dealarchitect), released his new book this month focused on technology and innovation – The New Polymath. Vinnie is probably best known for his Deal Architect blog covering waste in technology, but he also writes an intriguing innovation blog called New Florence. New Renaissance. Vinnie says he has cataloged more than 2,000 innovative technologies, companies and projects in 40 technology categories in this blog. This and interviews with 150+ innovators in infotech, cleantech, healthtech and biotech form the basis of his new book, which highlights Appirio extensively along with customers such as Avon, Starbucks, DeVry University. With his book out any day now, we asked him a few questions about it.

What is your book about?

The book is about a Polymath – a Renaissance person like Da Vinci who is good at many disciplines. The New Polymath in my book is an enterprise that is comfortable with a wide range of technologies and has learned to package 3, 5 or 10 strands of infotech, cleantech, nanotech, biotech, etc. into complex new solutions in order to solve some of the big and small problems we face.

A number of people know of my Deal Architect blog. But, the real joy for me has been my other innovation-focused blog, New Florence. New Renaissance. Over 5 years I have posted over 2,000 entries in 40 tech categories from mobile computing to nanotechnology. Many recent entries have focused on innovations in the consumer space and in social networks – as you know that’s where the buzz has been. Nice, but those are hardly complex problems compared to the some of the grand challenges the National Academy of Engineering has laid out, including ensuring plenty of clean water around the world and reverse engineering the brain.

Fortunately, as the database of posts grew year after year, I started to notice two patterns. I was seeing ever-more complex products and services that blended a variety of technologies. An example was General Electric’s plans for the Net Zero Home (as in zero annual energy costs), which plans to bring together solar, wind, next-gen battery, smart grid interface technology, and energy management software to make appliances, water heaters, and other devices a home more efficient. Or the BP CTO group, which effortlessly weaves sensory networks, predictive analytics, and other technologies to bring innovation to a variety of refineries, exploration sites, and other aspects of its global reach.

I was also seeing refugees from information technology increasingly move into cleantech and healthtech. Ray Lane (ex-Oracle) and Bill Joy (ex-Sun) are now key leaders at Kleiner Perkins, which has made 50+ investments in cleantech. Little in Kleiner’s past success as a venture capitalist in information technology (including blockbuster investments in Netscape, Amazon, eBay, and others) prepared it for a world of methane and selenium. Yet here the company is, reinventing itself by learning new sciences while investing in a new generation of entrepreneurs who are helping the United States catch up to other cleantech investors around the world such as the Germans, Chinese and Japanese. Similarly, Google, Microsoft, and others are increasingly offering products in the healthtech market.

Those are modern-day polymaths, I thought. That led to interviews and write-ups of eight Polymath organizations – GE, BP, salesforce.com and others who have shown the ability to effortlessly package multiple technologies. I then interviewed another 100+ innovators who are pushing the ball forward in specific areas like next-gen analytics and sustainability.

Why did you decide to include Appirio in your book?

One of the polymath case studies I did was salesforce.com. Over the last decade they have amalgamated data center operational knowledge (cooling, storage, etc.) with massively shared application management – tasks other software vendors expect hosting firms, systems integrators and offshore firms to provide to their customers. The more I saw of salesforce.com in the field the more I heard of this consulting firm called Appirio. Like an onion, Appirio turned out to have many layers. It writes software, not just provide services. It is adept at integrating a number of social and mobile technologies. Its clients and projects were much larger and more complex than I would have expected from a firm its size. In other words, it is a young polymath. In the book, I profile Appirio’s internal operations and the company’s work with two of clients, Avon and Starbucks.

What can IT leaders learn from the innovators you profiled?

Think both bigger and smaller. Bigger – in defining your goals. The book talks about Grand Challenges that governments and companies and individuals need to sign up for. Bigger – in that there is such a wide palette of technologies – infotech, biotech, cleantech etc – to create Grand Solutions to meet those Grand Challenges. Think smaller – in delivery and budgets. Constraint-driven innovation teams can deliver value far greater than their size. There is way too much waste today in technology budgets. And also give smaller vendors like Appirio a fair shot at your business. Every CIO should aim to spend 25% of his/her budget with vendors born less than 5 years ago.

Also, as I describe in the book, there are huge opportunities for products in industry after industry to embed the infotech, biotech, etc. IT leaders have the opportunity – indeed, the obligation – to coach their business units and product groups on how to behave like technology vendors. There are IP issues, revenue recognition considerations, rapid obsolescence considerations and more that IT has learned from in dealing with its vendors, and it should be preparing business colleagues to deal with issues in these same areas.

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