Different leadership models

You can read this post in Spanish here.

Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider was born in 1915 while Hello Fiasco was playing on the radio. Truth being told I don’t know what song was playing on the radio but give me this one. For the sake of the story. As a child he was obsessed with aeromodelling. Having such an engineering driven mind as a child, you would think he would choose a career in Engineering. But no. Forwarding 22 years, he graduated with a triple major in physics, mathematics, and psychology. And completed a Master of Arts in psychology only one year later in 1938. The year Robin Hood appeard for the first time on the big screen.

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Lately I’ve been reading and hearing that leadership is about being a facilitator. And that may be true at some level but it sounds shallow. I want to dig deeper and share with you some of the leadership models Lick used during his career that inspire me in my day to day.

Lead by being different

B. F. Skinner was one of the greatest representatives of behaviorism in the 20th century. He was also a jerk. Excuse my language. I’m sure you remember another defender of behaviorism: Ivan Pavlov, who made the dogs salivate by ringing a bell. Also a jerk. Again, excuse my language.

I don’t want to talk about behaviorism. But about Skinner himself and the people who finally stood up to him. In the most unusual way. The problem was that Skinner was a fanatic and quite a media celebrity. His followers applauded and adored him. His influence was so big that in the late 1940s you either were a behaviorist or your work reputation was deeply affected.

At the time, Lick was working at Harvard University as a research fellow and lecturer in the Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory. He thought behaviorism was an incomplete way of studying and understanding people. He stated that a more systemic way of studying the “mind” was more appropriate. All this while the word “mind” was forbidden by the behaviorists.

Along with William McGill, Lick had different ideas. Innovative. In a hostile environment ruled by an authoritative jerk with a horde of followers. What did Licklider and McGill did? Nothing. They literally ignored the behaviourists altogether.

We went our own way and thought it was a shame that they were missing this opportunity to understand what was going on. - William McGill

With a more systemic approach, Lick studied for many years the way in which people interact with computers. And later he brought us, among other things, the Internet. Licklider was really the first to dedicate himself to user experience. A pioneer.

McGill and Lick stood up to Skinner by doing an incredible job and revolutionizing the way people communicate and interact. And they didn’t need to start pointless debates on twitter. But in 1950s, just after the premiere of Destination Moon, Lick went to the MIT to work on a very, very peculiar project.

Lead by enabling others

The cold war was heating up. And the USA, being the USA, invested huge a amount of money in radar technology. Mostly because they were afraid the Russians would bomb them with an atomic bomb. That’s why Lick went to the MIT in 1950. To work on the SAGE project which was a radar network controlled by primitive computers. Lick was the head of the team concerned with human factors. The United States never knew if the investment they made was worth it because the Russians never attack them. Or at least that’s what history teaches us. But the concept of people interacting through a network of computers blew Lick’s mind. And stood with him forever.

In 1957, for the first time, Lick went to work for a private company: BBN Technologies. He learned about time-sharing. Which was like Google Stadia. Computers were somewhere in the cloud and people shared processing time. Although nobody talked about the cloud back then. The difference was that at that time the only thing people had to connect to the computer was a kind of typewriter. A teletype or teleprinter. You need to understand that time-sharing was very innovative at that time considering that IBM, as the industry leader, was selling mainframes. Time-sharing allowed people without access to a computer to use one without having to spend all that money. Licklider was a key player for the democratization of computing. Among others, Bill Gates got his first taste of programing with BASIC on a PDP-10 that his school had time-sharing access to.

Fowardin to 1962 with Elvis Presley playing in the background, Lick returned to work for the Department of Defense as the Director of the Information Processing Techniques Office. Lick wanted you to read this post right now. No joke. He had been given money to invest. And Lick didn’t look at things with a magnifying glass. He only found brilliant people and gave them money. A lot of money. As long as what they did had something to do with computing, it didn’t matter if it would be of any use or not. Or if the project made sense. Lick gave money to universities and private companies. He opened the gates of the Department of Defense funds. Time-sharing, graphics, interactive computing, you name it. Lick funded the craziest projects (for that time). Without that funding, the IBM model would have continued for many years and personal computing would never have arrived.

If you’re leading a team, give them a vision and try to do whatever needs to be done so they can keep working on what you care about. If they need money, get approval for the budget. If they need more people, bring them to the team. If they need time, make it happen.

Lead by inspiring

The next year Lick sent a memo to all his friends in college and private business called Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network. He wanted to connect all the different systems that he was funding. He wanted to create an intergalactic network of computers. And he started funding it.

ARPANET was not accidental. But it was not premeditated by the Department of Defense either. Lick used the excuse of “a communication network resistant to a nuclear attack” because the Department of Defense forced him to fund projects with a defense purpose. But the reality is that all that Lick cared about was creating a computer network to… hold my avocado… create a kind of symbiosis between humans and computers. He wrote about that topic in the 1960s and never stopped working on making human-computer interaction closer. It was not him who finally brought the ARPANET to life in 1969 because he was no longer working for the Department of Defense. But definitely, it was he who inspired an entire generation to build it.

If you’re leading a team, express your vision and bring together the people who share it. Try to improve your communication style. Put special attention to words and how you express your ideas. Be a dreamer but don’t sell smoke. Be optimistic and positive all the time.

Lead to get replaced

Licklider left ARPA in 1964, the year of Pretty Woman. But before leaving he found his own replacement: Ivan Sutherland. He was 26 years old at the time. Bob Taylor was hired as Sutherland’s assistant in 1965 and became director in 1966.

Lick never stayed too long working on a project. And he rarely finished the projects he initiated. Mostly because his main mission was to find talented and hard working people, inspire them and infuse them with his vision. He made sure other people were working on making his dreams come true.

Lick understood that computers were actually about people. And he was right. A sucessfull career in tech is not about the computers and not about the code. Is about the people.

If you’re leading a team, mentor and make other people grow. This is something one of my managers once told me once. Lead to get replaced. It is one the best way to grow. If you get other people to care enough about what you care, you will be able to move on when they are ready to replace you.

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