The Jay Kim Show #39: Kent Langley (Transcript)
Today’s guest is Kent Langley, who is probably the smartest person I have ever met. He is a Silicon-Valley based entrepreneur who has had multiple exits and now runs a company called ProductionScale, which focuses on the global exponential organization movement.
What exactly is the global exponential organization movement or global ExO movement, as he calls it? The analogy he gives, which is massively dumbed down for my mere mortal brain, is basically he consults large organizations and teaches them how to create a structure within that organization to leverage exponential technologies. What are exponential technologies? Exponential technologies are technologies where each year the power and/or speed are doubling and the cost is dropping in half, so think Elon Musk type projects, including robotics, drones, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and nanotechnology.
Kent is also a graduate and faculty at Singularity University or SU, where he teaches about data science and exponential organizations, no surprise there. SU is essentially a school for the smartest people in the world that solve global problems. It’s like a Y Combinator for rocket scientists. The admissions criteria is ridiculous. Basically, pick a business idea that will positively impact a billion people in ten years or less and if it’s viable, you can apply.
Fair warning, this episode is not for everyone, but for those of you who are interested in learning about the rocket scientists who will impact our future and change the world, then this one’s for you.
Jay: Hi Kent. How are you doing?
Kent: I’m great. Thank you, Jay.
Jay: Thank you so much for coming on this show. We’re very excited to have you. The [inaudible 00:02:34] that you are a slightly different guest that we’ve had previously, but you’re going to bring a lot of value. I’m very excited. We’re going to talk about some topics that maybe the audience haven’t heard of yet, such as exponential organizations and data activation, but before we get into all of that fun stuff, why don’t you give us a little bit of your background, Kent? I know that you’ve been an entrepreneur for pretty much your whole life, but maybe you could just lead us into how you got to where you are today.
Kent: Yeah, so I’ll start. When I was four years … No, I’m just kidding. I won’t start when I was four years old. In all reality, I suppose now that I’ve been on the West coast here … I’m in California. I’ve lived here since 2002, and I’ve started four companies here on the West coast. I’ve had one successful exit, one kind of right down the middle and another couple … One was an interesting experiment and one was … We’ll just call that that big failure everyone needs to really galvanize. That’s my entrepreneurial career here on the west coast, but I’ve literally been starting companies since I was a little kid. More than anything, in my last company, I began this work with a fella named Salim around exponential organizations back in 2014. Something happened to me in my last company. I really figured out, as an entrepreneur, what is it that I want to do, what am I driven to do. I developed something that’s called a massive transformative purpose for myself. That was to apply technology for humanity. Since the moment I figured that out about myself, everything changed: the type of people I talked to, interact with, opportunities, my own businesses, everything. It’s just been a really unbelievable opportunity to figure that out. It’s shaping all of my future work.
Jay: Sorry to interrupt. Just to take a quick step back, so for the audience that is listening that doesn’t know what an exponential organization is, maybe you could give us a quick definition of that first.
Kent: Yeah, sure. This is also tied to the what do you do [inaudible 00:04:43], what’s your background, so I do really three key things. I help companies and cities – we’ll talk more about that – become exponential organizations. This is an organization of people that typically can do things for usually around a 10th the cost and 10 times more effectively, we would say, than other types of organizations. The reason they’re able to do this is because of their capabilities at leveraging technology. Some of the first companies that we think to really nail this were companies like Google, like Apple, like Airbnb, like Uber. These are companies that just intuitively figured out what it means to be an EXO. Another interesting thing is around … You mentioned data activation earlier, but data activation is a framework for leveraging the power of data inside of an organization, could almost be folded in to this concept of an EXO in a way.
Jay: I see.
Kent: Then also I’ve been teaching all of this at Singularity University and in various online courses around the world.
Jay: We’re definitely going to get into all that. You just mentioned briefly earlier that you had sort of a shift in your framework, in your mind, when you figured out sort of your why, right? What’s your purpose? When did that happen for you exactly along your entrepreneurial journey? Was it one of your exits where you were finally maybe financially more secure and you were actually able to sit back and say, “Okay, now what do I want to do with my life?” Or was there another pivotal moment or incident that happened leading you to that?
Kent: No, it was actually a moment of failure and almost embarrassment.
Kent: I generally share pretty openly, so I’m happy to share that with you.
Jay: Thank you.
Kent: I was running a company, my last entrepreneurial effort and it just literally wasn’t working. We weren’t getting that coveted product market fit. I wasn’t able to push the cutting edge, beautiful technology into the market segment we had chosen. I had literally [was 00:06:42] beating my head against the wall. We started seeking ways to pivot. In our particular case, honestly, it was a bit too late. I wish I had recognized that better at the time. Sometimes, forest for the trees when you’re in the thick of it. That was the failing part, so that organization just wasn’t functioning, wasn’t working the way I wanted. A lot of reasons for that, I won’t go into them all right now.
The embarrassment part was I have a seven year old son and this was when he was probably five and he looks at me and says, “Daddy, what do you do?” Every kids asks their dad this and I looked at him and I said, “Well, I build these technologies that do x, y, z,” and when it hit me right in that moment, when I was going to say, “that do this,” and why my technology was being [enhoused 00:07:28], being applied, I didn’t like it. I did not like the way the technology I’m capable of doing and my teams were building was being applied. That’s where that comes from, when you say applied technology for humanity. I went big and I said, “Well, I’m going to find a better reason to do this sort of thing.” That’s what I’ve been doing ever since and data activation in part was also born from that frustration and embarrassment.
Jay: Wow, so that’s awesome, because I have kids of my own and when you dumb things down to … Not dumb, but you know, when you explain things on a more basic level, you really strip back a lot of the technical jargon that … And you really figure out what’s the meat and bones of what you’re doing. I love that story, so thank you for sharing that, Kent.
Jay: Let’s jump right in, because we have a lot to talk about. You mentioned your work in the exponential organization space. What exactly are some of the projects that you’re working on right now?
Kent: I guess my most formal title in that world is head of the global EXO movement, so what we’re trying to do is … The only thing that that particular role is supposed to do is make the EXO pie bigger for everyone. That means that two of my key projects are to work with two of the leading organizations in the implementation of the underlying EXO methodology. That methodology was discussed first in the book Exponential Organizations by Salim Ismail, which one of my companies, actually the failure, was profile in that book. I was an advisor on the creation of the book early on. One of companies is called EXO Works. That company is all about transforming organizations into EXOs and really standing for the global transformation of business.
The second big project, umbrella project, is something called the Fast Track Institute. EXO Works is for-profit, very much a consulting firm, essentially productized consulting. That was the way to think about that, because the framework that they’ve implement of the EXO methodology is called a sprint, not the same sprint that you’ll hear about … There’s a book called Sprint too. This is slightly different. That can be a little bit confusing, but the second one is the Fast Track Institute. This is a global non-profit, 5O1C3, that is doing exactly what EXO Works does for organizations, large organizations typically. We’re doing it for cities. In that context, we’re trying to connect citizens to their citizens and we’re trying to pump massive amounts of exponential technology knowledge into each region in which we run our framework of the EXO methodology, which is called a Fast Track. Those two projects are quite large, each of them. I’m a direct advisor and deeply involved with both of them.
Jay: Got it, so can you give us an example for people like myself who are on a much lower level of vocabulary, let’s say, than you are. You give an analogy of being sort of a consultant, right? Give the audience an example of how … If I’m an organization and I want to hire or implement your global XO movement into my organization, how would that process start?
Kent: What you do is you kick the process off through something we call an awake session. This is where you engage us to come in and do essentially like … Think of it as a massive influx of information in a very short period of time about things like biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology, all of these updated technologies that are rapidly growing and expanding throughout the world in exponential pace due to very fundamental things like Moore’s Law from Gordon Moore or Ray Kurzweil’s law of accelerating returns. These are those exponential curves that you’re always hearing about. All of these technologies, when they go digital, hit that curve. What we’re doing is very rapid, this start. We’re educating the organization about those technologies, how it’s likely to most impact them in a relatively short period of time. That’s the awakening.
From there, we run a 10 week process. This is the one specifically for organizations, companies. That 10 week process take all of the upper management and key operators through the process of engaging in the work of transformation to an exponential organization. Now, what we learned, the key thing that we’ve learned is when you go through that 10 week process, you don’t want 100% change your organization into an EXO. You change the people and you change their mindset and that’s what’s powerful. Then you begin the process of change for the organization during that by doing two key things. One is launching edge initiatives or EXOs at the edge. This is analogous to the way that Elon Musk launched Tesla almost from within SpaceX facilities or it’s analogous to the way that Apple is quite fond of launching new products with these two [pizza 00:12:35] teams that they do.
The second thing that you do is called EXO light. It’s sort of like the internal effort. The key there is that you don’t want to upset what we call the organizational immune system too much, because if the pace changes too fast, they will kill and they will kill it fast. We go through the process with the teams inside the organization of how to begin this process of changing the slightly slower pace. The net of all of this is that you get a chance to become your own disruptor as opposed to being disruptive from external forces.
Jay: Before that process even begins, there is an application process or some sort of survey process where you have to see if the organization that you are potentially going to work with actually has that sort of scalable technology that you’ll be able to implement the system into, right?
Kent: Yeah. That’s one of the first questions we always get. I work in industry x, y, z. How could I possibly become an exponential organization? Because we make widgets for example and we’re always going to make widgets and we’ve always made widgets. The answer is maybe the core won’t necessarily completely transform, because you’re still going to need to make the widgets or else you’re out of business, but by adding these adjacencies, these EXOs on the edge, you’re actually able to still push transformation and disruption within your industry in a meaningful way. I think a good example would be maybe, without getting too much specifics, I was working with a financial services company. This was a smaller example. They do one specific thing around advisory services and financial services. What we did with them is we looked at the exercise of how they could grow their business substantially by adding on adjacencies at the edge that were – to the core so that they could preserve their business revenue lines. I hope that answers the question to a degree.
Jay: That’s a great example. I feel like this is a movement in that if you are a large organization, being classified or certified as an EXO, I don’t know what you call it once one goes through the process [crosstalk 00:14:52]
Kent: We certify the people. We certify the people, not the orgs.
Jay: I got it.
Jay: It seems like this is-
Kent: It’s a good idea. Maybe I’ll look into that.
Jay: It seems like this is a … It’s almost like a credential, because as an organization there’s a lot of things that … I’ve been looking into a lot of social impact investing type … That’s sort of one of these badges of honors that organizations … Or maybe not badges of honors, but it’s definitely an initiative that a lot of organizations are moving towards implementing. It sounds like being an XO organization is one of these.
Kent: Yeah, absolutely. We found again and again that when organizations take a deep look at themselves and they find out that they don’t have a large mission, that massive transformative purpose, it’s not global, it’s quite insular, it’s not even potentially all that scalable, almost invariably, they start to reach for things that are more impactful. By impact, I mean impactful in a positive way on significant numbers of human beings wherever they may be. So far, honestly, it seems to be the case everywhere we’ve been and we’ve done this a bunch of times now.
Jay: That’s fascinating. Now, in the Fast Track Institute, that is on the global scale basically working with countries. Is that right?
Kent: Cities. Cities, specifically.
Kent: Yeah. The world cities are growing at literally an ever increasing pace as urbanization continues to push forward, because people move to the cities looking for opportunity. We’ve been seeing this trend for a very long time. This is hardly new, potentially thousands of years. What we’re doing there is that we’re trying to help cities adapt to this world in which the technological progress is giving sometimes even individuals significant amounts of power that only governments once had. What we did was we adapted some of the underlying EXO methodologies to a framework called the Fast Track. Then we created organizational structures that stand in for a CEO that you would have at an organization, but they stand in for the city. We call it the regional advisory board. That board is made up of public, private and academic [institutions 00:17:08]. They work together to run this framework or this process called a Fast Track.
The Fast Track is where we bring in external consultants from something called the EXO network. We pair them with local resources. You can think of it almost as a giant mentorship and program that’s a knowledge pump into the region. We create … I think of them as proto-companies through that process that have the potential to be accelerated and become real at the end of the process. It’s the actual regional members of the Fast Track organization in that region that then take those proto-companies that we create and accelerate them into reality using local resources and remote resources that we bring to bear. The Fast Track Institute acts almost as a curator or a facilitator for the booting up of this process. It’s really been some of the more rewarding work that I’ve had the pleasure to do in my career.
Jay: That’s interesting. You mentioned earlier that you’re doing work in Columbia, South America. Is there any other locations perhaps over in Asia that you’re doing any of this work?
Kent: Not yet. I was really excited to get a chance to be here and to tell people about the work, because I think there’s almost unlimited potential, because we look for cities that have at least a million people for what we’re doing right now, because they are the ones that seem to have that right sort of think of it as cost benefit analysis and risk analysis. I think just China alone, for example, has more cities with more than a million people than almost anywhere on earth.
Jay: Yeah. That’s right. There’s a huge opportunity. There’s a huge pipeline of cities in Asia that need your work.
Kent: We do have a number of EXO network consultants that are based in Asia. We just haven’t yet picked up a Fast Track city member yet, but we will.
Jay: Excellent, so let’s talk about data activation. What is it and how does that tie into your work?
Kent: Over the last, as I said, like 20 years of building companies, almost all of my companies have had something to do with the acquisition, the management of data. For example, a company that I started in 2008 was … I’ve co-founded in 2008 was in scale, that was disaster recovery as a service in the Cloud. I think my partner and I really pioneered that space in 2008. That was all about going into law firms and helping them essentially back their data up. When something bad happened at home, being able to [fail 00:19:39] over immediately and get back to work, because when you’re dealing with lawyers, they make hundreds of dollars per hour, in some cases, more, it’s important that they don’t lose too much time. That was some of the early genesis.
Then moving forward doing a [martec 00:19:51] company and working with dozens of companies in the social media analytic space all the way through probably 2012, I realized that there were certain fundamental truths almost of what data is, what it can be used for, and then how you go about activating it or making it impactful for your organization and its people. That’s what eventually became data activation. It’s really and truly a framework that empowers people to gain leverage with their data for their organization and do so in a relatively short period. So far, I’ve been even having luck implementing this in organizations where they’ve completely failed in the past to make good use of their data.
Really, when you think about data [activation 00:20:42] that way and you look at something … For example, I’ll give you a live example. I’m working with a company that makes agricultural feed products. You think, “Wow, that doesn’t sound that sexy,” but it’s actually really amazing because ultimately you feed people. Back in December, in our peak day ever recorded, we put 187 million plates of food on tables that in some way, our data process touched. We’re aspiring to put more protein of a higher quality at a lower cost on each of those plates of food in order to nourish wellness. This is a really nice expression of apply technology for humanity. If you go through a process like data activation where you acquire the data, prepare the data, analyze the data, then experiment with it and do real data science and then productionize that data, which means things like APIs, stand alone applications or a really popular way right now is notebook environments for data science is to mine and operate on the data in [inaudible 00:21:44] time. Then that’s data activation. That’s data that’s alive, that can do something other than sit on a server somewhere and essential rot.
Jay: The work that you do with data activation, does that fall under … Does that get implemented at the same time within your work in XO organizations in building them out or is that a separate structure or company that you used in tandem?
Kent: It started out really separate, but the reality is over time, it has begun to merge. One of the attributes of an exponential organization is called algorithms. If you look at the book Exponential Organizations, you’ll see that in there. Algorithms are about how you use data, how you work with data, how you do data science, essentially. That’s just the blanket. You can almost argue that data activation is a really advanced process for implementing that attribute of EXO. What I’ve done is blow that out and specialize in that as part of becoming an EXO.
Jay: Interesting, got it. Kant, somehow between everything that you do and your family at home, you somehow also are a faculty at Singularity University and an alumnus I believe as well, right?
Kent: That’s right.
Jay: I think that probably our audience probably has heard of Singularity or at least some of them have. Maybe you can give us a little quick rundown on what Singularity University is and what you teach there.
Kent: Yeah, sure, thanks. Singularity University is a place where you go to solve big problems. We say the impact you want to have if you’re going to be a student of Singularity University, either the executive program or the global solutions program in the summer – I’ll explain those a little bit – you want to think big, think moonshot big, so it’s a 10 to the ninth problem. That means you want to impact a billion people positively in 10 years or less. Now think of any business idea you’ve ever had and apply that filter. Then if it doesn’t pass, you’re not going to do it. Most people run out of ideas pretty quickly. What we teach at SU is that. We teach you how to come up with the ideas, what technologies you’re going to need to bring to bear in order to solve 10 to the ninth problems. As you might expect, a lot of those problems tend to be very social wellbeing or global social wellbeing in nature, because when you’re talking a billion people, there’s no one country – well, almost – no one country that you can touch without 100% coverage, right?
Kent: You kind of have to think in a different way. What I teach at Singularity University … Well, first I’ll tell you how I got involved. I went there in 2013, in March, as a student of the executive program, which is a one week, really intense, turn your cellphone off, you’re going to be in a deep type of course. I just felt like I found home, right?
Kent: I just couldn’t … At the end of it, while some people were looking a little like they were ready to go home, I was sitting there in my chair going, “That can’t be it. We’re not done.” I said, “What’s next?” I started just lobbying to be able to do workshops, to be able to speak, to be able to share what I know with the rest of SU. Then eventually, through a lot of persistence and work, became a professor there, a teacher, Singularity University teaching data science and teaching exponential organizations, my two key things that I do in life right now.
Jay: Right, I was going to say it sounds like you might be one of the founding fathers of SU because it’s literally exactly what all of your work is, your life work is right now. How does one apply to SU? Obviously, the criteria that you gave is quite distinct, but I imagine it’s quite a rigorous application process and whatnot.
Kent: Oh sure, so there are two real key courses and then supporting organizational functions around it. One is the executive program like I attended. This is meant for relatively senior level executives or people who are destined to be so to really come and get that dose of exponential technologies from some of the best minds in the world. It’s just I don’t ever step on the SU campus that I’m not just blown away by somebody that I meet. That happens every single time. There’s no place like it on earth. The second is called their global solutions program. I sort of think of this as the crown jewel. It’s really what we all drive towards every single year is 80 students from all around the world. I think sometimes as many 40 countries, 60 countries represented amongst 80 students, so you can figure out that’s pretty amazing. Each of those students goes through an application process and thousands and thousands of people apply.
They have to have a moonshot idea, a 10 to the ninth idea. They have to have the ability and the willingness to get it down, the perseverance, actually, oftentimes, to carry through with this idea. You throw 80 people like that together, you let them form teams throughout about a 12-week summer program and incredible things are born, incredible things, just a quick search of SU companies will show you things like companies that make rockets, things that make bioreactors that make you custom vitamins at home, companies like Matternet that are trying to solve short haul transportation using drones in Africa where the roads wash out in the winter, incredible things around 3D printing, companies that are completely modernizing the supply chain through the protection of digital IP for 3D printing. It just goes on and on and on. They’ve been at it for a while now. Then with the people that go through the GSP that really want to make companies have an opportunity to apply to the accelerator program there at the end of the GSP summer and then carry on their work and actually build the companies and make them happen.
When you mix all that together and then all of the global partners that join into the other programs, plus all the teachers and the customs, it’s just there’s no other crucible like it. It’s just a really joy to get the opportunity to be there. The founding fathers were Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis and those guys, they’re just incredible in what they’ve created.
Jay: Yeah, it’s literally probably the smartest people in the world in one location working on how to solve problems for the world.
Kent: It’s at NASA Ames in Mountainview.
Jay: Yeah, exactly.
Kent: Is where it is, and it’s a really really special place.
Jay: Amazing, amazing. Well, Kent, we have to look to wrap up here shortly. I just have a couple more questions for you. The first thing is in 2017, what are your immediate goals that you want to do? You’re obviously doing so much in various different organizations and you’re teaching. What’s one or two concrete goals that you would like to see yourself accomplish this year?
Kent: Well, I think one of my number one goals right now is the work that I’m doing with the Fast Track Institute has to be scale-able and repeatable and it has to become self-sustaining. I think that we have the opportunity to do that and we’re going to be working very hard this year to opensource that process, the process of doing Fast Tracks for cities. I think that would just be incredible if we could do that. It’s really a powerful way to give something back to the world. Now, on a more personal note, to take a step back from EXO and data science and all of these things, is I have to balance all of this really well with my family. I have three young boys and they look to me as well as for guidance and inspiration and I’ve been just trying to work really hard to make the space in my life to make sure that I don’t disappoint there either. That is equally important to me as everything else that I do, so for me, trying to balance those two things is one of my top goals for 2017.
Jay: Well, absolutely, and your son was the one that helped you along the way realize what you’re working for. That leads me into one of my last questions, which is you are actually sitting in a position and you have the knowledge and the power to make a substantial impact on the world. How do you want to be remembered by with all the work that you’ve done?
Kent: Wow, you’re going to give me a second on that one. Let’s see. This is going to be me in 2017 saying this. There’s an older version of me who would have never said this, but what I’ve figured out along the way is that in order to really get almost anything of value, you have to be willing to give something of value. What I mean by that is if I’m to be remembered at some point for any of the work I do, I want people to go, “Okay, well, that guy, he knew some stuff, but he shared it. He shared it really openly and that sharing really made a difference.” That goes from all of my personal relationships all the way up through my business and professional relationships. By the way, that’s not always easy to do. It kind of goes against even human nature at certain times, depending on what the context is. I’ve actually endeavored to make that a really core part of who I am and I think to be remembered for being really generous about the sharing of the technology, the implementation of technology that I’ve spent a lifetime learning how to do would be quite nice.
Jay: Sounds amazing. I can’t wait to sit on the sideline and watch the amazing things that you do. Thank you so much for your time, Kent. Last question is where can my audience find you, follow you, connect with you? I know that you blog quite extensively as well.
Kent: Easiest, quickest way to find me is just on Twitter. It’s Kent Langley, so twitter.com/kentlangley, there. I have my main website, which is at www.productionscale.com. Then I am actually experimenting with a [media 00:32:04] blog instead of my dedicated website blog. That blog is called The Forty-First Square. If you figure out what I mean by that, email me. I’d love to hear it.
Jay: There you go. Nice challenge for the audience. Excellent, thank you, Kent. Really appreciate the time. We’re excited to see the work that you do.
Kent: Thank you, Jay, very much for having me on your show.
Jay: All right, take care.
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