Studio IX: You ready to dive in?
Mbugua Karanja: Every doctor says that this won't hurt.
Studio IX: It won't hurt a bit. (laughter) We'll start off easy. Tell us who you are and what it is you do.
Mbugua Karanja: Cool. My name is Mbugua Karanja, I’m a Business Architect, now with AT&T after they acquired DIRECTV. I help businesses get better at using technology to transform themselves. That’s essentially what I do.
Studio IX: What do you enjoy most about it? About the work itself?
Mbugua Karanja: Making sense of business problems and aligning that to IT. Typically what happens is, you talk to a tech guy. He's got a solution for the problem from his bag of tricks. Most business folks are thinking about the immediate problem, the tactical; “I'm going to fix this right now. I've got to get my sale out the door”, which is great. Those are real world problems.
What I do is step back and look at those problems from the perspective of what everyone is trying to do. It could be, for example, business unit strategy or goals for the year and I break that down using particular formats and tools to “paint pictures about the business” that reveal the actual problems and relate them to potential tech solutions. If that's what the issue is, I also then put together a plan to address that problem with a price tag to it. I basically help translate business speak to IT and vice versa. I'm like the Rosetta Stone between business and IT. So I enjoy making sense of that and figuring out problems and working with people.
Studio IX: What are you passionate about, and does it relate to your work in some way?
Mbugua Karanja: Yes it does. I'm passionate about the power of technology to unlock human potential. I saw a great quote the other day that really resonated with me, which was "Talent and skills are equally distributed, but opportunity is not." More and more today, opportunity translates to access to technology. We've got many divides in this world, but here's a new one, the technology divide. My passion is about bridging that technology divide for different parts of the world. I haven't found a way to make that lasting impact yet, but that's sort of my next thing.
Studio IX: Where are you from?
Mbugua Karanja: Ah, yes. Kenya.
Studio IX: And how did you get here? Had you already started doing this work before arriving in the states.
Mbugua Karanja: Interesting story, that. No, I haven’t quite had the nine lives of a cat, but I think I've reinvented myself several times. I was doing something very different before.
Studio IX: Talk a bit about it.
Mbugua Karanja: Ok. Let's rewind a little bit. I'm from Kenya and I came over for my MBA. The plan was, I'll pick the US, never been to the US, been everywhere else mostly. I'll take a two year MBA because I think one year is too quick, so didn't want to go to Europe. Just take my two years, time to press the reset button and once again reinvent myself. Came to CA and the two years went by in a flash, and then I kind of figured out that I did need a job. That happened and I'm still here. So, years later I am still here through a combination of blessings, grace, opportunities and choice. Started a family, formal immigration and all that stuff.
Studio IX: Can you share a memorable story? Something that stands out to you.
Mbugua Karanja: Yeah, let me see. There are a few. Back in CA I went to a dealers’ conference. And what those dealers do is sell our products in the marketplace. They're not employed by the organization, they have their own businesses, and they basically said, I want products and sell them to make money. They may like the products, but they're really in it for a business.
So, I had just gotten engaged on this transformation initiative and I spent the previous few weeks listening to stories of the problems we have and what needs to be resolved. I sat down and had lunch with this business owner which led to several meetings afterwards. His version of what the issues are, and what we thought they were, was just night and day. What we thought were their priorities and problems, they couldn't care less about. He helped demystify for me, just how absolutely necessary it is to take the time to ask the right questions of the right people and understand the real problem. Don't come to the table with a solution. Come with an open inquiring mind and a willingness to learn and be willing to take criticism. He had quite some things to say about us, our products, and our focus. The disconnect couldn't' have been wider So it led to very interesting conversations about enlisting their help in assessing what the real problems and the plans needed to bridge that divide.
Studio IX: What's an aspect of your work that people might be surprised to know about?
Mbugua Karanja: I don't think this is surprising, but to me, every so often, I remind myself just how much easier work would be if it wasn't for people.
Studio IX: If it wasn't for people?
Mbugua Karanja: Yeah.
Studio IX: They're complex.
Mbugua Karanja: It's amazing isn't it? It never ceases to fascinate me. We're just complex creatures, right? We've got our own agendas. We've got our own myopic views and it takes a lot of hand holding, persuading and influencing. I depend a lot on soft skills to get my work done. Extracting information, sharing, analyzing that information and playing it back. That's amazing and people are complex.
Studio IX: Where do you see yourself in the next five to 10 years? Where do you see your industry?
Mbugua Karanja: Myself, hopefully I'll have pivoted to a place where I'm able to address what I'm calling the technology divide. Identifying a way to insert myself into that conversation. It's a passion of mine, just because I think it holds back vast sections of the world population. I'm not going to try to go after world problems necessarily, but I do want to make an impact It's interesting when we run it at a very local level e.g. C4K. Seeing their projects and what they can do. That's opening their minds and ours to all the possibilities. They wouldn't have access to that perhaps. That's an example of closing that digital divide, is what I mean.
The industry is going to be an interesting place. There's this famous quote in the industry going back years that software was going to basically end up running a lot of our lives. I think we're already there, and what we'll begin to see, or continue to see in some sense, is a fragmentation of the industry as everybody goes out to get a slice of us as consumers. We'll begin to see also a merging between the experience we have as consumers with our technology and what large corporations expect in the way they do day to day businesses. Expect to see more and more of that.
I expect to see entry barriers being lowered as it becomes easier to start a business but also a lot more challenging competition, and just the speed of business really to pick up.
Studio IX: How do you think we as humans will adjust? It does feel that things are speeding up more and more. Do you see how that impacts the quality of work that's done, but also the quality of people's experience?
Mbugua Karanja: I think we'll find that universally, we're probably going to have an inconsistent response to it, and here's why. There's usually different sets of values. One of the things that's playing right now, is people are slowly realizing that if you're getting a product or a service for free, most likely you're the product. That's why our data is so much in demand by all these tech places. There's going to be a push back against this.
We've seen Europe lead the way in some pretty aggressive action of rules and legislation that basically tell the tech giants what they can and cannot do. This is a hard sell in the US in my view. It’s going to be difficult to get legislators to decide what US businesses can and cannot do. At the same time, I think there's still a reckoning to be had, because we have let technology get away. I think there's going to be that tension at play, and unfortunately, the people we are asking to cure us, are the ones who infected us in the first place. We are no better because we continue taking the poison because it tastes so good. It hurts so good. That’s a reference to an old song by the way. And so, we continue drinking from it and it's a little tough to stop.
The whole disinformation thing is going to continue being a big deal. And we really have to get over those two things if we're going to have constructive dialog of what to do. But we have let the genie out of the bottle, I don't know how we put it back. I don't know how we do that.
Studio IX: Yeah, I don't either.
Studio IX: Final question. What do you enjoy about working here? About being at Studio IX?
Mbugua Karanja: The people. Fun story about how I ended up being here. When we moved to Charlottesville, you can blame my wife for that, it was her idea. Moved here, she's got her job over at UVA. I'm doing my work from home thing which was remote. She'd come back home, and she walks in through the door, and I’m like, okay, that's it, we're going out because I've been indoors all day talking to myself or being on the phone with other people. I just want to get away and have that interaction, but she just wants to sit at home. She's been out there doing her thing. So, there was this healthy tension for us, I'm not going to say it saved our marriage, but it didn’t hurt it. That’s a good tag line for you by the way…” StudioIX will save your marriage”.
Studio IX: Save your marriage. Beautiful.
Mbugua Karanja: Because now I don't have to work at home, I can come in, have a place to work, I can meet different people. I don't talk shop with them because I don't work with them, I get to learn about different things and listen to problems. That's been really cool. I have to confess, I don't know that I've done as much, taken advantage of that as much as I thought I would, or as I should really, but the promise is there, and I've done that a little bit. That's really cool actually. And now every time I go to a different city to work for whatever reason, co working space is my go to thing, and it's very interesting the things you learn. It's opened my eyes. I didn't even know such a thing existed.
Studio IX: I didn't either before I came here.
Mbugua Karanja: It's fascinating, A worldwide phenomenon.
Studio IX: That's all I got for ya.
Mbugua Karanja: Really?
Studio IX: Yeah.
Mbugua Karanja: Wow.
Studio IX: See. Painless. (laughter)