A Conversation with John W. Thompson

John W. Thompson speaks at FAMU

Tallahassee university FAMU (Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University) had the honor of hosting John W. Thompson last week where the former Symantec CEO gave an inspiring talk about education, careers in STEM, and diversity in the tech industry.

In the Lee Auditorium at FAMU, Thompson fielded questions from students, local residents, and Tally entrepreneurs about issues in tech and startups. Hosting the event was FAMU President Dr. Elmira Mangum who received questions from twitter using the hashtag #ThompsonTalk as well as from people in the audience.

John W. Thompson, a FAMU grad himself, recently granted a significant donation to his alma mater, and cites his professors at the school of Business and Industry as some of his biggest influences. After a short introduction, the conversation began.

Diversity matters, diversity in what you invest in and diversity in the workforce you create.

When asked diversity in the tech industry, Thompson said that diversity is “a real challenge” in tech, and cited education as a major factor. Since the user base for tech products is so diverse and inclusive, said Thompson, so should be the groups designing the products themselves. In order to better accommodate tech’s user base, its creators should be a diverse group as well.

Thompson also spoke about challenges he faced being a minority in the tech industry. During his time as Symantec CEO, he was asked “What’s it like to be the highest ranking African American in tech?” to which he responded that he did not want to be the “poster boy” for tech diversity.

When asked about industry trends for the next 5-10 years, Thompson was skeptical. “We couldn’t predict what technology today would look like 5-10 years ago.” He did offer up judgement that predictive analytics will be applied more and more to digital content, and that we will see growth in AI, 3D imaging, and other areas that “make tech more real.”

When asked about his long career in tech, Thompson gave advice focused on self-improvement and goal setting.

The biggest mistake someone could make is to have an aspirational goal with no means of measuring your progress towards that goal.

Thompson also talked about his favorite hobby, hunting, and how it relates to the business world. He remarked that in his family they “eat what [they] shoot,” and that “the freezer must be empty before the next hunting trip.” Thompson showed a focus on sustainability and and making use of owned resources, both valuable concepts in business, especially lean startups.

He spoke about the increased pressure and visibility that comes with a high ranking position in a corporation, and how you can’t let that “distract you from your focus.”
On bad press and PR, Thompson said “I’m a duck hunter for a reason… water [just] rolls off my back.”

Thompson’s main focus was on education. He commented on how current K-12 education “doesn’t produce enough STEM skills,” and that the U.S. needs to step up its technical education to compete with outsourcing and foreign markets.

Life is about lifelong learning.

Several questions were asked about startups and venture capital. One about his personal investments prompted Thompson to define a “unicorn” startup as a company with “low revenue but high valuation.” He relayed the importance of a “risk-oriented attitude,” and how creating a successful startup requires you to “take a risk… but have an idea first.”.

The conversation ended with Thompson’s thoughts on the changing face of the American economy. While tech has disrupted thousands of jobs, he said, it has created thousands more, and will continue to do so in the coming decades. He talked about the need to get more people interested in STEM careers to prevent “creative destruction” in the job market.

Success is about having more positive results than negative results.

Thompson is one of several tech magnates to visit Tallahassee in the past months. Other recent guests to our city and startup centers include David G. Cohen of VC group TechStars, Randi Zuckerberg (former Facebook marketing director), and Paul Singh of AOL.

These prestigious guests as well as events like Google-sponsored Startup Week 2016 and the HackFSU Hackathon (one of three Hackathons this year sponsored by Apple this year), point to a bright future for Tallahassee tech and entrepreneurship.