The value of Technical Insight in Business

About a few weeks ago, I was mindlessly scrolling twitter when I stumbled on a tweet by Vala Afshar. In the tweet, he mentioned that google came into operation in the late 90s, at a time when there were several search engines already in the market. The tweet also included a nostalgic video clip of the garage in which google started.

Complete nerds crammed in front of computers stationed in disheveled makeshift offices. Somehow, Google managed to become the dominant player in the search engine space. If there is a way to understand what led to the rise of Google, surely there are lessons we can glean from such understanding.

Vala’s tweet started a thought trajectory in my head. I’ve seen this play out several times, in many different business scenarios. The winner isn’t always the first one to the market. At the time Google came in the picture, there were already 20 existing search engines. Sometimes the winner is the one who can out-innovate the rest. Innovation lies at the core of some of the greatest success stories in business history. Innovation that connects well with the end-user. Google’s innovation in search started with the introduction of the Page Rank algorithm. To understand Page Rank, first, you need to understand the Search problem.

When a user searches for content on the World Wide Web, they want to find results that closely match their search query. Early search engines ran on primitive algorithms. For example, they would return the pages with the most keywords matching the search entry. This proved inadequate. It was possible to search for the word ‘hospital’ and get results that are not so relevant to hospitals simply because the word ‘hospital’ appears on the page multiple times. A rather frustrating experience for the user who just wants to search for hospitals.

Larry and Sergey decided to apply a technique they called Page Rank (an interesting play of words, given that Larry’s surname is Page). The technique would generate a graph that could hierarchically model the vast amount of information on the World Wide Web. This procedure assigned higher rankings to pages that were hyperlinked by other high ranking pages. A somewhat recursive algorithm. The fundamental logic was that if a lot of pages link to a page, then that page is important.

Copped from Wikipedia

Their insight paid off, and as at the turn of the new millennium, Google had the superior product on the market. Sure, the current Google search has gone beyond mere Page Rank. A number of different algorithms are utilized in order to provide the intelligent search experience we enjoy today. But the story of Google’s success is one that points to the value of technical insight. Insight is what allows you to see 2 or 3 or even 10 steps ahead of everybody else. And even though insight is more often something you stumble upon, it is very possible to increase your chances of such a lucky encounter. The secret lies in knowledge of the problem domain, and empathy. 

For a company that wishes to secure innovation capacity in a problem domain, it would be great to hire ‘learning animals’. People who maintain an insatiable curiosity on many things. This also serves as the primary driver of their intelligence.

There’s a reason the big tech companies are very successful: they don’t joke with the quality of people they hire. It may seem elitist, but really it makes sense. You can always tell when you encounter such people. They are ambitious and have a genuine thirst for knowledge and personal growth. This manifests itself in many ways, depending on their chosen line of work: the Developer who spends hours after work practicing and honing their skills, or the Business Lead who takes the time to learn the market environment and master its dynamics, the list goes on. Such people are more likely to bring innovation capacity to any company they work in. 

But innovation doesn’t make any sense if it doesn’t connect with the intended users of your product. And that’s where empathy comes in. A great many products were conceptualized when the founder experienced a problem or an inefficiency and sought to resolve that inefficiency. 

Two years ago, the founder of TeamApt: Tosin Eniolorunda was at an Ebeano store when he needed to make a payment. As is often the case in supermarket stores, the POS machine was unavailable at the time. And so, he requested to do a transfer. Turns out, transfers were not accepted because it would take great effort to verify the payment. If the customer makes payment via transfer, the attendant will need to contact the store owner who owns the bank account and confirm the money has been credited. What’s worse is the store owner might be unavailable at that time, or the SMS credit alert can be delayed even after the money has entered. A harrowing experience for a customer who has to wait for credit notification before they can walk away with their purchase.

At that moment, Tosin thought about a problem he could solve. If there was a way to guarantee instant delivery of credit notification to a payment point, the payment point can be made to display an account number to accept transfers. The attendant will not need to contact any store owner since the POS will receive the credit notification instantly. Virtual Accounts Service was born out of technical insight from the founder of TeamApt and it became a standard method of payment or top-up on products like PiggyVest, CowryWise, Wallets, BuyCoins, and many more. 

The business landscape is highly competitive, with companies constantly hustling for market share. In order to stay ahead of the game, one must continue to innovate. Innovation is a product of insight that stems from knowledge of the problem domain and empathy. Sadly, insights do not grow on trees, and that is why I would advise most people to seek knowledge. Learn and grow your mind. You only future-proof your career or business by constantly learning new things. Plus you never know what insights await you from the things you learn. If you’re in business, you don’t even have a choice; failure to learn and grow means you run the increased risk of being blind-sided. Stay woke.