Steve Jobs with iPhone
Digital Innovator Steve Jobs was in his late 40s and early 50s when developing the iPod, iPhone and iPad

“My grandkids often beat me at Rock Band. And I say, ‘You may beat me at Rock Band, but I made the original records, so shut up!'” – Paul McCartney

Often you see the world divided between “digital natives”, the young people who grew up using digital technology and are incredibly comfortable and facile with it, and “digital immigrants”, everyone who is older than, say, 25, who had to learn how to use the computer, the Internet, smartphones, tablets, social media, etc., at some point later in life. (Sometimes you hear a few other categories, such as “digital agnostics”, people of any age who have chosen not to use these tools, but natives versus immigrants is the big divide.)

The suggestion in this divide is that the immigrants will never be quite as comfortable as the natives. But this ignores a key fact: our modern digital world was created by a special class of digital immigrants that I’ll call the “Digital Innovators”.

Steve Wozniak has a classic digital immigrant background: “At one point in my life, my third year of college, the most important thing I owned was an IBM Selectric Typewriter. Steve Jobs and I got a couple for a blue box. The next year, my most important possession would be my HP-35 calculator.” And from there he went on to develop the early Apple computers which were known for their technical elegance.

On the other hand, the classic digital native is the one-year-old who thinks that a magazine is a broken iPad because the pictures don’t zoom in and out when you pinch them. Evan Spiegel, 23, who co-founded and is CEO of Snapchat, is also a true digital native; he was about three when Mosaic, the first Web browser, was released. My daughter is a native; she was a beta-tester on interactive games and storybooks I worked on when she was four. Maybe a good definition of a digital native is someone who was using the technology before they knew how to read.

Doug Engelbart giving The Mother of All Demos
Doug Engelbart giving The Mother of All Demos

However, the technological great leap forward of the past 20-30 years was created almost entirely by immigrants who were also Innovators. Some Innovators started making major contributions in their twenties, but for many others it was later. Jim Clark, already successful at Silicon Graphics (SGI), was 40 when he teamed up with Marc Andreesen (a younger Innovator) in 1994 to start Netscape and commercialize the browser. Doug Engelbart, inventor of the computer mouse, hypertext, and many other digital innovations, proposed many of them in The Mother of All Demos when he was 43. Steve Jobs was in his teens, and could not code, when he started working with Woz; he was in his late 40s and early 50s when leading the development of the iPod, iPhone and iPad. He still couldn’t code.

Some other innovative immigrants: Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook; Marissa Mayer, president and CEO of Yahoo!, was employee number 20 at Google; Sheryl Sandberg is COO of Facebook; Reid Hoffman was co-founder of LinkedIn; Marc Benioff founded; Jimmy Wales, co-founded Wikipedia; Jeff Bezos, you know; Meg Whitman became CEO of eBay when she was 41 and grew it from 30 employees to 15,000, she’s currently president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard; Bill Gates is the co-founder of Microsoft who has just changed roles from board chairman to “technology advisor”; Mitch Kapor founded Lotus Development; Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web; Ray Ozzie created Lotus Notes and was Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft; Dan Bricklin conceived of the spreadsheet, the first “killer app”; Larry Ellison co-founded and is CEO of Oracle; Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn developed the core TCP/IP technology of the Internet.

Terry Winograd
Terry Winograd and friend

These are just a very few of the Big Names. Many other Digital Innovators are behind the scenes. Here’s one you probably haven’t heard of: Terry Winograd. Winograd was Larry Page’s graduate advisor at Stanford. Page was considering several ideas for his research and Winograd told him that he thought Page’s ideas around Web search were his best ones. The result was Google. Page calls it “the best advice I ever got.” Winograd was 50 at the time.

Bill Campbell is now in his 70s and over the years has served as chairman of Intuit, on the Apple board, and on the Columbia University board of trustees; Campbell also once coached football at Columbia. But he is most famous as a still-active mentor to many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Eric Schmidt (a Digital Innovator himself) says, “”His contribution to Google – it is literally not possible to overstate. He essentially architected the organizational structure.”

And behind these people are tens or hundreds of thousands of other Digital Innovators who all gave the flywheel another shove.  They buffed and polished the new graphic user interfaces, created speedier processors and networks, figured out how to create and edit images on computers, invented streaming video and non-linear video editing, guided clients through several generations of digital marketing and sales innovations in just 20 years, and designed many different versions of that supercomputer-in-your-pocket: the smartphone. And much, much more.

So here’s to the Digital Innovators. Like our country, our digital world was built by innovative immigrants.

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