What IT Leaders can Learn from Iron Man

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The action, the mayhem, the battle between good and evil – Comic book action movies are always fun to watch. Plus the fact that the good guys always win in the end makes for a great escape from reality, even if it is just for a couple of hours or so.

Iron Man has a great story. But did you know that there are (or we could make up) business lessons that every tech leader could learn from – and some you could probably avoid – but we’ll stick with the positive today!

Iron Man doesn’t need much in the way of an introduction, but just in case you limit yourself to watching green screen terminals… The Marvel superhero, Iron Man, is the alter ego of billionaire Tony Stark. Stark was kidnapped by terrorists and forced to create a deadly weapon, powerful enough to kill people at a massive scale.

Instead, Stark creates a powerful armor to escape his masters, with the help of an assistant who doesn’t make it out alive. This experience marks the start of Iron Man’s career as your every day world-saving mech-suit-clad billionaire.

The Iron Man movies were generally well-received by fans and critics alike, earning billions of dollars for the movie franchise. The most recent installment, Iron Man 3 is estimated to have grossed $1.2 billion worldwide alone.

1. Look ahead and around corners

Whether you’re creating software, or writing a script, there will eventually be a better idea than your go-to approaches and there probably already is.

Tony Stark was obsessed with finding the perfect Iron Man suit, and over the course of three Iron Mans, you’ll see a lot of suits, each one better than the previous. Stark was never really satisfied with his current suit, even though the Mark XLII suit served its purpose in the finale battle.The best thing about tech is that you can always release a product or feature to market and then roll out improvements ongoing, practically as soon as they’re developed. Versioning, upgrades, patches, lean development, etc…

Nevertheless, one thing holds true if you stay with version 1 all your life: the usefulness of the software, script or tactic will diminish over time. It will become obsolete and so will your role. Learn, update and iterate to stay relevant. Subscribe to blogs and forums, follow topic-expert users on social media and network with peers to stay ahead. You should be going through dev and test cycles on a regular basis with the new solutions you come across.

2. Don’t give up.

Iron Man can’t stop, won’t stop, especially in his technology development process. From the same example, by planting a stake in the ground with his first build, Stark knew his competitors would copy him (see everything Apple), so he had to relentlessly innovate and iterate to stay ahead. Not every iteration worked out or met the environmental challenges (aka bad dudes trying to pulverize him). By the time Iron Man ended, he was on suit #42.

Every tech leader has experienced failure in his or her work. The trick is to never give up. If you don’t worship comic book heroes, you can instead follow the examples of Bill Gates, Steve Job or go way back to Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. If Edison had believed his teachers when they said he was too stupid to learn, he wouldn’t have carved his name into history and we would not know him as we do now. If Telsa had bowed to Edison, the world would be worse for it.

3. Recognize and nurture opportunities

In Iron Man 3, the Mandarin made Tony Stark’s life a living hell, putting his life and everyone he loved in danger. But did you know that the Mandarin, aka Aldrich Killian, once sought Stark’s help for a project Killian called Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM)?

Stark ignored and then shunned Killian, so he was left with no choice but to work on the project on his own. Along the way, Killian created a profitable business for himself, always with a chip on his shoulder and a big target visualized on Stark’s back.

This story line sounds dubiously like the Yahoo and Google story. Back in the day when Google was nothing but a ridiculous word and every middle schooler’s favorite number, Yahoo lorded over the search engine market, Sergey Brin and Larry Page tried to sell their algorithms to Yahoo for a mere $1 million. Brin and Page figured that they wanted to stay in the academic world, doing research, teaching, and perhaps coming up with the occasional software development. Trying to run a business would definitely put a crimp in that plan, so they considered dumping their algorithm in a sale to Yahoo.

After ignoring Google in 1997, Yahoo tried to acquire Google in 2002 – the business and its algorithm, for $3 billion (3000X more than what they would’ve paid five years earlier). As we all know, Google would proceed to all but knock Yahoo out of the search engine game. Today, Google is one of the biggest tech companies in the world while Yahoo’s only (long) shot at a turnaround is from the leadership of a former Googler.

Tech leaders rule their workplace, but you never know what alliance or partnership will become valuable, so it’s best to treat everyone you meet with respect. That pesky junior architect can very well become the Google to your Yahoo, the Mandarin to your Iron Man. But more than this, you would need to see the potential in people and the gem behind the idea. Even if the new idea doesn’t fit with your current approach, as long as it has merit, give it some legs or at least sincere review. Do the same with promising talents.

4. There should always be a Plan B, Plan C, and yes, even a Plan D.

As Stark came to the realization that his business brought more harm than good, he didn’t have any qualms about shutting down his company’s weapons division for a new direction in his business.

Evolve. The true mark of a tech leader leading a great tech business is the ability to adapt. You need to be aware when your current way of doing business has become ineffective and outdated.

Be sure to adapt to the current market and business circumstances, embrace change, and look for ways that would effectively address the situation. Don’t be afraid of getting out of your comfort zone. Take a cue from Iron Man and Elon Musk (basically the closest real-life thing we have to Tony Stark).

Elon Musk has worn many (ten-thousand-gallon) hats in companies across a swath of industries. ATt Paypal, Musk offered his talent and entrepreneurial spirit to help change how people exchanged money.

He was instrumental in bringing clean energy to thousands of rooftops and installs with SolarCity and electric vehicles at Tesla Motors (If you’ve seen the launch/fail rate of that niche since the 70s, you know how incredibly amazing this is). Now Musk is taking on another side-job, trying to send everyday people beyond Earth with SpaceX, and who knows what else is in Musk’s plans for 2014 and beyond!

Vision and peering around corners (whether at a worldwide scale or industry/department-level) are the things that IT leaders can learn from stories – fictional or otherwise. So feel free to geek out on your favorite blockbuster, visionary or historic legend – it might just inspire you.

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