Silicon Valley thinker Nir Eyal has his eyes on the future. Consultant, Stanford professor and founder of two tech companies, he's also the keynote speaker for the first Detroit Mobile City Conference on Feb. 2 at the Westin Book Cadillac downtown.
He specializes in how human psychology, technology and business intersect -- a critical component for entrepreneurs who want to compete in the exploding industry of mobile applications. HuffPost Detroit asked Eyal a few question on where innovation is headed and how to create a place in the emerging tech economy.
HuffPost Detroit: You're coming to Detroit to speak to aspiring developers, or those whom are still sharpening their skills. As someone who has headed two companies, what do you look for when you're hiring a potential developer?
Nir Eyal: I always hired for attitude first, aptitude second. However, what I really look for in hiring someone is a great reference. In fact, I wrote a somewhat controversial blog post about why we should "abolish the reference check." But don't let the title deceive you, this technique is one of the most effective ways of finding great people.
How did you begin specializing in the idea of user engagement and behavior? Was it the mental challenge that organically appealed to you, or was your interest first piqued in a professional manner?
At my last company, we were working at the intersection of gaming and advertising during the boom days after Facebook opened its platform. From that vantage point, I had the opportunity to see lots of companies and advertising campaigns come and go. Some were tremendous successes, while others, well, were not. I began looking into what accounted for the differences and began collecting lessons about what created high levels of engagement. From there, I began researching and writing about consumer behavior and habit-formation.
Is it good for people to be so dependent on sites like Facebook or Twitter? Is there risk involved in investing so much of our lives into these services?
I don't think it's a black and white, good or evil, type of distinction. Technology is a tool and just as a hammer can be used to build homes, it can also be used to bludgeon someone to death. Clearly, how the product is used has a huge impact on answering the question "is it good for people." The answer is of course, "it depends." I think many habit-forming products bring great meaning and purpose to people's lives. Companies like StackOverflow or Quora offer tremendous examples of online communities that facilitate high-quality knowledge exchange and discourse. Their products are also potentially habit-forming.
I do believe habits can be used for good. Of course, many habit-forming products can also be used for nefarious purposes. Ultimately, I believe it is up to consumers to be more aware of the increasingly addictive world we live in. I also believe product designers should consider their moral responsibilities. I created a framework, called the manipulation matrix, to help makers consider their duties to the user.
What's the next technological advance you're looking forward to the most?
Artificial Intelligence, robotics, and wearable computing are the areas I'm watching closely.
Tech companies are so often painted as a watering hole for young, brilliant innovators. You're coming to speak in a city where massive amounts of manufacturing jobs have been shed, and many of the jobless are over age 40. What hope do they have in this kind of burgeoning economy?
For one, I think the jobs are coming back. Though there are many obstacles and uncertainties that could derail my prediction, I think the country is moving in the right direction and we'll see growth come back to the American economy. However, those jobs will only be available to people who embrace change. The good news is that it is now easier than ever to learn a high-paying skill. There are dozens of programs designed to teach people with little or no experience how to code. These 10-week crash courses often place people with no more than a high school diploma into $85,000 a year jobs.
Do you think mobile developers or entrepreneurs should move to Silicon Valley, where a vibrant economy has already developed? Or do you think that similar success stories can be created elsewhere across the country?
I think great ideas can come from anywhere.
When you mentor start-ups or incubators in the Bay Area, is there one common misconception about the industry that you find in newbies?
A sure sign of a technology newbie is someone who keeps their product ideas a secret. It takes a while for newbies to understand two surprising things about Silicon Valley. First, that people here will honestly try and help you and most often not expect anything in return. Second, good ideas are not scarce. There is a myth that great ideas come from eureka moments like bolts of lightning. Newbies think their great ideas should be hoarded to prevent someone from stealing them. That's just not the way it works. Everyone has their own ideas and projects they're working on and doesn't really care about your ideas. It's much better to share your ideas with anyone who'll listen so they can tell you the things you didn't know you didn't know.
What are the most critical elements a city needs in order to build an infrastructure that welcomes innovators like you?
There is no single critical element; it's an ecosystem.
The first Mobile City iOS conference takes place Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013 at the Westin Book Cadillac in downtown Detroit. Tickets are $149 for the all-day conference and $99 for students and early registrations before Jan. 7. Click here to register for Detroit Mobile City.