I had never heard of “Rachel’s Challenge” before.  Maybe I should have.  Started by the parents of the first student killed in the Columbine shootings, it’s mission is to reach out to the students who are the victims of bullying and help create safer learning environments.  The organization came to my son’s elementary school this spring, and from all accounts it was a positive experience for everyone involved. (Warning: if you have school age kids, the content of that website and Rachel’s story will cause you need a few minutes to compose yourself…)

What really caught my eye and got me thinking was one of the signs that had been posted around the school:

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The Chain Reaction of Kindness Starts with Me. On one hand, it’s a great reminder of how we are the change we want to see, and how effort is required to make that change happen.  The US political system is a great example of how this basic message has been lost for an entire generation of people.  We’d much rather complain on Facebook and make funny pictures to share on the internet than actually get our hands dirty.  Use all the excuses that you want to, we are the reason things are the way they are.  Don’t like it?  Get off your ass and start a chain reaction.

There are chain reactions in tech, too.  A good startup is a chain reaction.  A group of users asking for something new can start a chain reaction.  Companies deciding to stop being beholden to the status quo, deciding to go to market in a new way, choosing not to play the negative marketing game…all of these can be ways to start a chain reaction.  The people who have the talent, dedication and drive to start these chain reactions in tech are special.  They start with a good idea and a lot of caffeine and end up being the legends of the industry.  Not everyone can, or should, try.

dominosHowever, I’m coming to realize that you have to start a chain reaction to participate meaningfully in one.  Starting a chain reaction, or trying to, has a real cost, and not everyone has the ability to pay it.  Some leave the starting to others, and then join in to amplify when their comfort level permits.  Of course, the more mature the chain reaction is when you join it, the less you get out of it, in both tech and in life.  Personally, I’m not in a place financially to be able to start my own company, no matter how much I’d like to.  Over my career, however, I’ve been willing to sign on to someone else’s idea early on in the process.  I’m willing to be the first person through the wall for an idea I believe in, even if that process always involves a little blood loss.

Of course there are people who don’t want to be part of the chain reaction process at all.  They show up for work at 8:30am every morning, shutting down and going home at 5:00pm like clock-work.  They exist their entire careers without ever taking a chance, or buying into someone else’s idea.  I meet lots and lots of people like this as part of my job, working for both enterprise customers as well as large vendors.  Don’t make waves.  Don’t push too hard.  Do what you have to do, complain about how bad things are for you, mock the lack of vision of the people in management, but never, ever pop your head up over the cube wall.  Don’t, under any circumstances, let a monkey up the stairs.

One of the small ways that I’ve been trying to help participate in a chain reaction is in the realm of competitive marketing.  The Office of the CTO is an integral part of our competitive team at VCE.  Trey Layton really deserves the credit for being the first one through the wall on this, but it’s been interesting to see the responses, internally and externally.  Basically, the idea is that our company will never create a competitive comparison document that is designed for customer consumption.  We will create documents to help the field teams understand how we differentiate against competitive offerings, but we’ll be as factual in those comparisons as possible.  Why?  Because they can only come back to hurt you.  The minute the information gets into customer hands it’s outdated, and all the competition as to do is show that it’s outdated and you lose credibility, and that goes especially for direct-to-customer communication via social media.  For example, when you Tweet things like this:

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All it takes is someone showing that the articles you referenced are months old, that the company involved has more than broken even on the investments that it’s investors have made, that both of it’s primary investors mentioned it exclusively during their (positively received) calls with investors and that the basic lack of math skills is embarrassing, and your credibility is shot.  You are forever labeled as a FUD slinger.

The same goes with those competitive presentations that HP, IBM, EMC and NetApp like to use.  You can’t be current on every development your competition makes, and it’s so easy to use one mistake or outdated “fact” to discredit the entire document.  There is no upside.  So we don’t make them.  We tell customers we don’t make them.  We compete on our value and that of our technology.

Even better, in my mind, is that we walk the walk internally too.  Email exchanges like this happen every week inside VCE, and the response is always the same…

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Professionally, this is a chain reaction that I want to be part of.  We can compete with each other without being disrespectful and without knowingly spreading FUD.  You just have to choose to.

There are other chain reactions I want to be part of, some personal and some professional. What about you?

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