skip to main content
Overcoming Obstacles to Build What Seems Impossible

Overcoming Obstacles to Build What Seems Impossible

Webcast Details

  • Gallup Called to Coach Webcast Series
  • Season 6, Episode 51
  • Listen to internet pioneer Vint Cerf as he discusses keys to innovation, such as discontent with the status quo and freedom to take risks, in this BP10 Update.

On a recent Called to Coach, we spoke with Vint Cerf, Chief Internet Evangelist for Google, who is known as one of the fathers of the internet and is a Gallup Senior Scientist. We discussed Gallup's BP10, what it takes to be a builder, and the three "key players" in the development of any organization: Expert, Conductor and Rainmaker. Vint added some insights on AI and technology to close out the interview.

Our host was Todd Johnson, Senior Global Channel Leader, Entrepreneurship and Job Creation at Gallup.

Below is a summary of the conversation. Full audio and video are posted above.

Todd Johnson: From Born to Build:

As an Expert, you primarily focus on product development and research for your venture. … Whether you invent something new or improve a product or service through several iterations, you focus on finding solutions to the issue your customers face. … Highly independent, you constantly push beyond current thinking, never accept the status quo and reimagine new possibilities. You are not simply a dreamer but a discerning and sophisticated thinker. … With your endless persistence and unbridled determination, quitting is not an option. You fully dedicate yourself to improving a product or service. … You are part artist and part scientist -- and comfortable working at the intersection of both. Operating a business does not really interest you, so you are happy to delegate the mundane tasks of business management to others.

Vint Cerf: I think that's a pretty good way of capturing who Experts are and how they think. I would add one small bit of flavor to that summary: People who make things happen are always a little (or a lot) discontented with the status quo. It is this discontent that drives innovation. So I'm always looking for people who are a little dissatisfied.

The best Experts are really good at thinking differently than others do about solutions to problems. This kind of rethinking of how to solve a problem is what I find attractive. We see this in people at Google (where I work) and Gallup.

And these people are also willing to try things out that don't work. They're willing to fail, and it's important to create an environment in which it's OK to fail -- not that they would fail all the time, but that they have the freedom to take risks.

TJ: And, as you indicated in your example, disruption isn't just for high tech. Going back as far as New Haven, Connecticut, were there times in your childhood or schooling when you had moments of disruptive thinking?

VC: When I was in the 5th grade, I complained to the teacher about how boring the arithmetic was. I said, "Surely there must be something else," and the teacher said, "Yes, there is," and handed me a 7th grade algebra textbook. I had a wonderful time solving the problems in the algebra book over the summer.

Then, about the same time (about age 10), I managed to get a chemistry set. I found the "what if" element about chemistry fascinating -- what happens if I mix this and that? And then you could go back and ask yourself why it happened. And later, in high school, I loved chemistry because we had the chance to understand what might be going on and to make predictions.

So these are examples of moments when I was helped to think differently.

TJ: We know that building also involves partnership. In 1997, President Clinton awarded you and your partner Bob Kahn the U.S. National Medal of Technology. Can you tell us about your partnership with Dr. Kahn?

VC: Bob and I have known each other since 1969 and have worked off and on together. When you do things like the internet, for me, this is not a solitary invention. This is a struggling together to explore the problem. In working with someone, I love standing in front of a whiteboard and sketching ideas and struggling over how they should go. Sometimes we get into knock-down debates.

When we found ourselves at odds, we discovered that it was probably because we had differing models in our heads about what we were talking about. So we'd stop and ask each other the model we were using, and then would adjust to get the same model and then have our argument -- but it would be more productive.

In Walter Isaacson's book The Innovators, he described the power of partnership. And I think he's hit on something very valuable there.

TJ: Have there been any Rainmakers or Conductors on your journey that stand out, and about whom you can share some insights?

VC: Bob Kahn fits into several categories -- so if anyone's a Rainmaker, it's Bob, in addition to being an Expert and a Conductor. I guess it's OK for some people to fill all three roles. I wouldn't put myself in that category, but Bob certainly is.

Another example of a real Rainmaker is Bob Harcarik, who hired me at MCI the first time to build a system called "MCI Mail." He called it "the digital post office." What was particularly compelling about Bob and his vision was that after he described this to our small group that was supposed to figure out how to build it, he said, "To do the impossible, first you have to believe it isn't." That has always stuck with me, and we managed to build that system in nine months in 1983.

The ability to envision this as a product and to create the incentive to press on at a high pace takes someone with a great deal of enthusiasm and the ability to express their expectations.

TJ: What advice would you have for the younger builders in pursuit of their journey to build and disrupt, but also in pursuit of a mentor and coach. What should they and shouldn't they look for?

VC: First, I would say, "Don't think you know everything," because you don't. Don't be afraid to find people who know more than you do, and to ask questions (there are no stupid questions).

Then, always remember that just because someone has been around for a while, this doesn't necessarily mean they have the best view of the future. Sometimes something may not have worked 25 years ago, but the reasons it didn't work may no longer be valid today. The willingness to rethink positions is important.

So be careful who you ask advice from.

People with more experience than you may indeed know more than you do, but it's your job to figure that out. If you decide not to follow what they say, you should have good reasons for not doing that.

If you're a mentor, you need to listen to your mentee and discover when your advice may be inappropriate because it's no longer accurate or valid.

TJ: So the guys we're coaching around Fire might be different than the guys we're coaching around AI.

Should we be excited or nervous about AI, are we totally in the dark, or all of the above?

VC: You're probably closer with "all of the above." There is a lot of excitement about things that are labeled "AI," in fact, maybe too many things are labeled "AI." At Google, there is a lot of excitement about a specific type of AI called "machine learning" -- which was out of favor for a long time, until some new hardware came along that allowed us to build "multilayer neural networks," which are as much as 500 layers deep. So this is a powerful tool, but it's "brittle" -- it doesn't always work, and we don't always know how to predict when it won't work.

So this calls for a certain degree of caution in the application of these technologies, even though some of the results have been utterly dramatic. But these are not the same as what is called "artificial general intelligence" and we shouldn't confuse these with machine learning algorithms and their deep and narrow character.

Jim Collison: You almost described a human being when you described the "brittleness" of machine learning -- sometimes not dependable, sometimes not the right answer -- sounds like our human staff. Is that because it's smarter or because we still have more to learn?

VC: The brittleness that we see in the machine learning algorithms is a consequence of how the neural networks function. To the extent that humans are also capable of making mistakes, we should be thoughtful about both of these categories. Humans have some abilities that the machine learning systems have not exhibited.

One example: A table is a flat surface perpendicular to the gravitational field. Most people don't think of it that way. But when we see an example of a table for the first time, we quickly intuit what it is. Once you understand that basic principle, you realize that lots of things can be tables (your lap, a chair, a box). It's amazing how quickly humans go from the specific example to all the generalization of the notion of table. It's very rare (on the other hand) to find any kind of machine learning system that has this ability to generalize.

That's the difference between artificial general intelligence (the ability to build models and reason about them to extract an abstract from the specific to the general) and machine learning (though machine learning does take large quantities of information and look for patterns -- but this is much more specific and narrow in most cases).

JC: We often talk in the Expert role about successes. What about the failures? You mentioned early on about pivoting from failure to success. Can you think of a key failure that you were able to pivot on and change that to something successful?

VC: Absolutely. The beginnings of the basic internet protocols -- we went through four iterations of that design. This is the most important part of invention: You never get it right the first time. You have to be prepared to try things out in as real a world as possible in order to uncover logic mistakes or assumptions you have made that turn out not (to be right).

TJ: What are you excited about, what are you working on, and what can you share with us that we should be excited about?

VC: "Excited" can mean scared, too. One thing I worry about is this class of devices that fall into what we call the "internet of things" (programmable devices) -- whose software we rely on (the computer-controlled refrigerator or microwave) -- possibly handing autonomy over to that software.

I'm concerned because the people who make these devices often have the model of getting these things into the hands of the consumer, take their money and never deal with them again. But because it's software and because nobody knows how to write software without bugs, there are almost always bugs to be fixed. So someone who sells you devices like these should in theory and ethically be there to fix bugs, and I worry about the need to update the software to fix these bugs or to help the device do more things than it could in its initial release.

And then you get into the problem of making sure the device doesn't ingest malware that wants to take control of your refrigerator or microwave. These people typically don't want to mess up your refrigerator or oven; they want to use its compute cycles and communications capabilities for their purposes. So you might have a compromised refrigerator that is part of a bot net that is generating spam in addition to keeping your ice cream frozen. But you won't notice that the refrigerator is malfunctioning, because it isn't, from your perspective. But it's become part of a bot net and is being used for nefarious purposes.

We don't want that. So in having a lot of computer-controlled equipment in our private worlds and corporations, we have to pay a lot of attention to reliability, safety, privacy, security and resistance to attack.

TJ: You've been part of the strengths movement since its inception. We've shifted from a focus on pure entrepreneurship to "What are you building?" What advice would you give to Gallup and the movement that involves identifying and celebrating the builders?

VC: The discovery that you have entrepreneurial talent -- that you are a builder -- is an important discovery. Here's something I'd like Gallup to tackle. Capitalism has been an important part of U.S. history. But currently, we see enormous wealth disparities in the U.S. population. One thing Gallup does that most companies don't do is to make sure the company is owned by the same people who make the company valuable -- the people who work there.

Most businesses have shareholders and owners, along with workers. I believe Gallup has successfully melded together those two "states," in which you can be a worker and an owner at the same time. There are only a few of these. The problem with the current notion of ownership is that the owners don't necessarily do anything to contribute to the company other than contributing capital. And capital doesn't make the company; what makes the company is the people who make it work, who bring their ideas to the company and figure out how to do things.

So I think Gallup has an important role to play -- to remind us that there need not be this disparity.

I think what would be really beneficial for everyone is if you characterized a successful builder as a builder who allows the wealth of the company to be shared by the people who make the company valuable.

TJ: Thank you so much, Vint Cerf, for being with us today and for sharing your thoughts and your expertise with us.

VC: Thank you very much; I really enjoyed the chat.

Vinton G. Cerf's dominant builder talents are Relationship, Disruptor, Knowledge and Delegator.

Learn more about using CliftonStrengths to help yourself and others succeed:

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030