Digital Frontier '02 takes stock of high-tech fallout
Student conference explores New Economy's past and future
As it does each year, the Kellogg School's Digital Frontiers Conference (DFC) brought together some of the best minds in academia and the information technology industries to explore the past and possible future of New Economy business. On Jan. 19-20, the longest-running high-tech MBA conference in the United States celebrated its 7th anniversary, offering more than 600 students, faculty and industry experts an opportunity to come together in the Donald P. Jacobs Center to discuss a variety of business implications engendered by recent trends and advances in the IT sector. Keynote speakers included Tom Siebel, CEO of Siebel Systems; Peter Thiel, CEO of PayPal: Brian Ferguson, chairman and CEO of Eastman Chemical Co.; and Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, former CEO of GovWorks.com.
The conference theme was "Transcending the New Economy." The student organizers of the event sought to offer participants a perspective on the tumultuous year in technology and provide insights into how technology has effected organizational changes. In particular, said DFC general manager Josh Holmstrom '02, the organizers wanted to broaden the event's appeal by showcasing the way technology has impacted a variety of industries, including those in both Old Economy and New Economy organizations.
"We really tried to change the focus of the conference this year to make it less technical and instead provide a stronger general management perspective about technology," Holmstrom said. "We tried to find panels and topics that really illustrated how technology has impacted a bunch of different businesses. After the [Internet downturn of] last year, we wanted to bring some excitement back to DFC to show people that this technology is here to stay. There's a lot of great things going on, despite the reaction of the NASDAQ and some high-tech companies that have failed."
Among the intellectually stimulating panel discussions were considerations of nanotechnology, online auctions, cutting edge media, and technology innovation in Latin America. Of particular interest to attendees was a moderated discussion of the lessons learned over the last year by business leaders and their companies operating during a turbulent market.
In his keynote address, Tom Siebel (pictured above) emphasized the rapidity of change in the IT sector, and advised people to keep the recent market downturn in perspective.
"Investment bankers are talking about a 'terminal recession,'" said Siebel, who disagreed with that analysis. "This is nothing. This is a pretty modest recession. You have to put the ludicrous e-markets of two or three years ago in their historical context. Twenty years from now we'll look back and see that we were just at the beginning of the greatest economic expansion in history."
Siebel's keynote touched on a variety of subjects, including recommendations for MBA graduates to secure a job, even during a recession. "How do you get a job in this market?" he asked the capacity audience. "Same way you would in an expansive market. You find the industry you want to work for, you find the company you want to work for and then you get hired."
Siebel emphasized a return to basics in the job search, telling students to communicate their passion to a would-be employer, and to be sure to err on the side of professionalism.
"You want to be in charge, you better look the part. Business is not a casual activity. It's not done in blue jeans and a tie-dyed T-shirt with a Labrador retriever in the conference room," he said. "Buy a couple suits. And be an expert in your area - whether you're working with vacuum cleaners or computers."
The CEO also stressed the importance of ethical behavior in business, relating how his company has always striven to be an exemplary corporate neighbor in whatever community with which it's involved. Siebel chastised business leaders whose "misplaced values" put advancing shareholder concerns before all other interests. "That [model] is a bunch of bunk," he said. "The CEO's job is to build a great company with great customer service. Shareholder value is really a secondary concern."
Discussing what he considered best strategies for corporate success, Siebel insisted that students should pay more attention to business courses in the area of organizational behavior. "This was the stuff I slept through in school," recalled Siebel. "I was on the golf course. But in reality, this is the most important material to learn, because we're playing a human capital game, and it's your team versus their team. If you can recruit, train and keep the best people, you will win every time."