Jim McKelvey can’t understand anything that’s too complex. He co-founded Square to revolutionize credit card payments. He’s world-renowned in the art of glassblowing. Now he wants to infuse some Silicon Valley DNA into his latest venture, LaunchCode, that not only educates people for a career in computer programming but gets them jobs – in less than six months.
McKelvey recently shared with SAP News his thoughts on the secrets of innovation, the meaning of simplicity, what he considers truly game-changing, and his biggest challenge of the past year.
Q: What’s the secret to being an innovative company?
A: It’s a mix of humility and arrogance. Great ideas typically don’t come from the top down so there needs to be some arrogance to pick from among the many solutions to move in a particular direction. You see glimpses of this in some companies but seldom are they combined. I’m a former IBMer, and they were great at fostering innovation in the trenches, allowing hundreds of scientists like me to invent new things. But they never had a central focus that drove certain initiatives to completion. It was heartbreaking because we had great technologies. You’ve seen this again and again with other excellent companies like Xerox and AT&T that never fully capitalized on what they had. You need a series of good ideas, and at the appropriate level there has to be the will and drive to strongly pursue the ones that are right.
Q: We hear the phrase “game-changer” so often these days it’s become trite. What’s the latest real innovation to capture your attention and why?
A: Medillin, Colombia was the most dangerous city on the planet judging by murder rates, open wars between drug lords and the government, and areas of intense poverty. Thousands of people were living in these lawless comunas which had sprung up along the side of the mountain with no regulation or planning. Comuna 13 was the most dangerous – even drug cartels were too afraid to go into it. They replaced the stairs that snaked up the mountain with escalators so that anyone could ride up and down the mountain. Connections with people and some colorful paint helped profoundly change the culture. Now it’s safe to walk around there at night. That’s a game-changer. They took a shockingly difficult problem, and provided an elegant, beautiful solution that was respectful of the people who lived there, as well as economical and tremendously effective.
Q: How do you define simplicity?
A: Something that I understand has to be pretty simple. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around too much complexity. To me, simplicity is embodied in this transcendence when the product performs its function without affectation. For example, there’s a tool I use daily in my glass studio that’s unchanged for a thousand years. It does exactly what it needs to do in an effortless and unpretentious way. That’s the essence of simplicity. You can’t just remove features and call it simple. Something has to work in its environment without demanding any additional resources. We get into trouble when well-intentioned designers fall in love with their product and believe it demands more attention than it really should.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the past year?
A: I’m changing my world of operation from a for-profit to a non-profit model. My focus is on LaunchCode, which is a non-profit institution that gets people jobs. The world of non-profit work is astonishingly inefficient compared to what I’m used to. So I’m slowing things down, but also trying to infuse some of the for-profit DNA I pulled from Silicon Valley into this non-profit. We need to move very quickly to fulfill our mission. In our pilot run in St. Louis, Missouri, we took 120 people with no programming background or skills and placed 90 percent of them in paying positions. It’s a fantastic, volunteer-led effort providing something meaningful and life-changing.
Q: You’ve had a wide-ranging set of career pursuits. What career achievement are you proudest of and why?
A: Square has touched millions of lives but I’d have to say LaunchCode because it has more deeply changed the lives of the people we’ve reached. Our population cuts across all ages, races, and genders. Half of these people are unemployed, 85 percent have no formal training in programming, 45 percent have college degrees but of those, only 15 percent have technical degrees. Some have physical disabilities and are economically disadvantaged, and many have been under-employed. For example, taking someone living on welfare and disabled, and getting them self-sufficient for the first time in 10 years, which is something we recently done, is fantastic.
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