An interview with Scott Totzke, former VP Security at Blackberry.
Since launching my new site that focuses on the importance of taking time in life, and since I happen to live near Blackberry headquarters, I kept revisiting this niggling question in my mind: what does the company that revolutionized the world of mobile communications, think about technology and its effect on our perception of and relationship with time? I also wondered what a veteran working for this tech giant thinks about our ability to connect with others throughout the massive odyssey toward all things digital. Should technology be demonized or canonized? I spoke with Scott Totzke, recently former Senior VP of Security at Blackberry. Before his retirement and throughout the last decade, Scott worked to advance RIM’s approach to product security. Under his leadership, his team established the fundamental processes that have enabled security to be RIM’s single biggest differentiator and innovator in the mobile smartphone and tablet markets. Based on his experience, I couldn’t help but think that if anyone could get a grip on these questions, it would be Scott.
SlowStruck: Scott, what did the advent of technology mean for us in terms of our perception of time? Scott: I see mobility in general as being a culmination of multiple unintended consequences. Like many things in our lives, technical innovation outpaced our own personal discipline and ability to re-establish social and business norms. In short, the advent of BlackBerry and other solutions that enabled connectivity changed the way we thought about being present in any given moment—in a taxi cab, on a conference call, or at a family function. With mobile technology, lines around where and when got quite blurry. The weekend in Canada is the start of the work week in Dubai. Nine to five has become a bit of an illusion if you have customers and business partners around the world. Early on, with this new technology, we talked about getting an hour of productive time back in the work day. ‘What would you do with that extra hour in your work day?’ was the promotional and exciting question and the answers were enticing: manage your inbox, communicate with customers, advance your business, stay on top of things, and get more done. And if you equipped your team with mobile solutions, you could net a 30-40% gain in productivity. For a CIO / CEO / CFO that is a pretty easy sell. Give them a mobile device, make them more productive.
SlowStruck: I never thought of the angle that technology not only alters our perception of time, but also of space. Clearly, from a business standpoint, the technology is a positive thing. But when we take a 50,000 foot view, where are the potential pitfalls?
Scott: Well, the next level of selling mobility gets into the promise of disconnecting from the office and spending time with your family. Imagine being able to go to your kid’s hockey game and still be managing things at the office. And I think that is where things start to come off the rails since most of us don’t have the right discipline. If you are at a hockey game, responding to an email message, you simply aren’t “in the moment” with your family. I think this is where the relationship with time really starts to break down, especially if we are looking to be connected with those physically present around us. Let me describe my experience from the vantage point of someone living this from the start – building the product, selling the product and living in a global company where everyone has a BlackBerry (or two) and is always connected. Before I developed my own discipline, my life would look like this:
*Up at 6:30 a.m. with every intention of hitting the gym. Grab the BlackBerry on the table beside me, check emails before I got out of bed. Just want to respond to a couple hot items that came in while I was sleeping. Before I know it, it’s almost 8:00 AM (most days), I haven’t had breakfast and the gym is out of the question. I went from not missing a workout in 10 years to only getting in a handful per month.
* Hit the office, spend the day in meetings and on conference calls. Myself and most of my colleagues are probably 50% engaged (at best) in everything. Our heads are down, reading and responding to emails; we’re half participating in the meeting going on around us. I can’t begin to describe the number of times you would need to address a question to one of the participants directly, only to get “I’m sorry, can you repeat the question?” sort of response. The “productivity” gains really turned into ignoring what was going on in meetings unless you were the one talking.
* End of the day, drive home. I could feel the stress of not being able to respond to emails for that 12 minutes. I get home, respond to whatever happened. I never have my device more than arms length away. Kind of watch TV, or hang out with the family, but always ready to respond. Last thing before bed, I would check for any late breaking emails, respond, turn the device off and go to bed. Many times I would get an urgent request for a call at 11:00 PM from someone overseas or maybe on the West coast.
* Weekends — time to hit the rink with the kids. Just a little crisis going on in the Middle East that I need to address with a quick email or conference call. I would stand behind the glass, sending emails all game long. Got busted by my boys so many times for working instead of watching. I had to develop the discipline slowly. Quick checks between shifts so I only needed to watch about 1/3 of the game, to finally leaving the device in my pocket for the entire game. I think it took five years for my boys to break me of the addiction. So, sure, you are liberated to go spend time with your family and stay on top of things, but often that means you spend your time (evenings and weekends) physically present in some family activity, but mentally doing work.
SlowStruck: I appreciate you being honest about your own life; it is really interesting to hear how a Blackberry man himself had to learn control in some realms…I think so many of us live this way! From your own personal experience, it seems you’re suggesting that we as a society might not have a grip quite yet on how to properly control this ‘new power’ as it relates to being present with others in our lives?
I would view mobility as the opposite of going slow and being in the moment. It has become a technology that erases the concept of time and location and, as I noted, requires all sorts of new discipline and social norms. How often to you see groups (not just teenagers) in a social setting with everyone staring at this 5 inch screen in their hands? They are completely absorbed by something going on somewhere else. I don’t think my experience is unique. Mobility should be the technology that enables us to be more present, but unless we change the way we interact with everyone it quickly becomes something that robs us of the moment and extends our working day with work silently consuming more and more of our time.
Technology separates our physical presence from our mental (and emotional) one. I’ve never seen anybody sitting in a board meeting watching their kids play soccer on their phones, but I’ve seen the opposite occur too often. What could be more “relaxing” than four people out playing golf — by definition a slow, social, connected activity? Nothing more than a group of friends enjoying five hours of friendly competition — outside, together, breathe in, breathe out, swing the club, move on — right? Unfortunately, not always so. Many times I’ve played the game in another way – take a shot, get in the cart, send emails while my partner drives, take another shot, jump on a conference call, repeat, repeat, repeat. I’m maybe 20 minutes of being with the group and four hours being somewhere else.
SlowStruck: But surely there is a way for us to mature and keep the connectivity online as well as nurture the connectivity offline?
It is interesting to see how some companies are starting to address this. We see large companies looking at disabling access to corporate email outside of business hours. I think that there is a slow realization that having this type of instant access to everyone has negative impacts over time. On a more positive note, this same technology lets me stay connected to family and friends in real time. I’ve traveled the world and have been able to share that experience with my wife as it happens. A great sunset in Abu Dhabi, a walk on the Great Wall, walking in Red Square at Christmas…images instantly sent to her phone to share the moment half way around the world. In this sense we are connected by an experience that is beyond where we are physically located or what is going on around us….we share the moment in a very real and meaningful way. Pervasive connectivity comes with a cost. Unless we actively and aggressively manage it, we really do risk eroding our ability to connect to everything around us. Balancing the use of this type of connectivity is critical.
SlowStruck: So — as we hear often these days — you would say we have to disconnect in order to really connect?
Scott: Fortunately, most of these devices come with an OFF button. I suggest everyone learn where that is and use it more often. Put the phone down, engage your family and friends, watch the sun set and enjoy the moment.
Photo credit: Kārlis Dambrāns/flickr