You could say Gabe Klein lost his job due to changing technology as much as it was politics.
The tech-savvy chief of the District of Columbia (US) Department of Transportation (DDOT) chief resigned his post effective January 1, 2011. Klein’s boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, was defeated in the November 2010 elections. In DC, that meant a changing of the guard.
Klein was featured in a PARKING magazine article (“ ‘d.’ Delivers Choices,” September 2010). Under his leadership, DDOT was experimenting with a number of progressive urban parking and transportation strategies and technologies.
No Program = No Problems
“I’m sorry to see Gabe Klein leaving … after an energetic two years,” said the Washington Post’s Robert Thomson, a.k.a. ‘Dr. Gridlock’ in his eponymous column on December 12, 2010. “His style was to try out a program, see how it worked and then adjust to correct problems… Each time he worked on something that affected how thousands of people get around, he was bound to draw criticism. The best way to avoid problems in your program,” mused Thomson, “is not to have a program.”
Klein’s program drew detractors who mauled him for raising on-street parking rates and testing, side-by-side, parking technologies including pay-by-cell, pay-by-space, pay-by-plate, and solar-powered, single-space parking meters that accepted credit cards.
Myths of Technology Adoption
It would be easy to conclude that the takeaways from Klein’s experience are: Don’t change technologies unless you have to and pick only one technology “winner.” Yet while both might entail less career risk, both are rooted in certain myths about how technology advances.
One myth is that you can ignore changing technology. “This ‘telephone’,” remarked an 1876 Western Union internal memo, “has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
Western Union passed on the opportunity to buy all rights to the telephone – cheap – and was later nearly swallowed up by Bell Telephone, saved only by the U.S. government interceding in an anti-monopoly move.
A second myth is that you can actually pick a technology winner; your chances of doing so are probably no more likely than beating a slot machine in Vegas with your first quarter. This myth assumes there is only one winner and technology advances in neat, sequential steps. In fact, the history of technology has proven to be more like waves on the seashore: irregular, overlapping, merging, branching, and forever in motion.
Technology Often Splinters
David Pogue, personal technology correspondent for the New York Times, is tasked with the challenge of reviewing the continual torrent of new technologies. His analogy on their advances is apt. “Things don’t replace things; they just splinter,” Pogue said in his November 24, 2010 column. “I can’t tell you how exhausting it is to keep hearing pundits say that some product is the ‘iPhone killer’ or the ‘Kindle killer.’ Listen, dudes: The history of consumer tech is branching, not replacing.”
“TV was supposed to kill radio,” Pogue notes. “The DVD was supposed to kill the Cineplex. Instant coffee was supposed to replace fresh-brewed. But here’s the thing: it never happens. You want to know what the future holds? O.K., here you go: there will be both iPhones and Android phones. There will be both satellite radio and AM/FM. There will be both printed books and e-books. Things don’t replace things; they just add on.”
Sure, there are branches that eventually end, like the eight track tape. But most advances are just individual technologies or components updating. A single-space parking meter doesn’t hold a candle…er, light bulb…er, CFL… er, LED…. to a current model, but it’s still a parking meter.
Hedge, Layer, Experiment
So how can we solve problems with technology while not picking a “loser”? First, realize, like in Vegas, you’re probably going to have to drop more than one quarter to be successful. Second, layer your technologies so they complement each other, e.g., pay-by-cell can work side-by-side with solar-powered parking meters. Third, like Gabe Klein, don’t be afraid to experiment; competent vendors confident in their technology are often very happy to allow you a test drive.
Don’t worry about Gabe Klein. He’s done all right. After leaving DC, he served as as the Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation.
Today, Klein is a Special Venture Partner with Fontinalis Partners, a project of former Ford Motors Chairman Bill Ford, which aims to invest in and drive innovation across next-generation mobility. Through his new firm CityFi, he also “helps city leaders, citizens and stakeholders to understand the complexity of 21st century challenges, facilitate people-centric solutions, utilize new models for delivery and technology-based tools to deliver triple-bottom line results.”
When it comes to technology, watch out for splinters.
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Image “Splinter” by Karri Huhtanen, via Pixabay