9 TED Talks from Tech Leaders That Can Actually Teach You Something

Viktor DanoViktor Dano

Inspirational and insightful TED talks by technology leaders, featuring Google's co-founder Larry Page, Tesla's CEO Elon Musk, and Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux.

TED Talks are a fantastic source of inspiration. If you want to dream big about the future, you can find hundreds of TED Talks to get motivated and learn more. But if you are a software engineer, you might find yourself searching for that one talk about technology and design thinking that will actually teach you something. What you as a developer need is not an inspiration, but hard truths that will help you build something great.

There are great TED Talks about technology, but there are only a few talks from technology leaders that stand out. The stories they share are not just yearnings for a better future, but manuals on reason and logic and how to build something with an impact.

We compiled a list of the best down-to-earth TED Talks to help software engineers learn how great minds think, and maybe get some work done with this new insight. Among them are Larry Page of Google; Elon Musk of Tesla Motors; Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux; and Tony Fadell, who is responsible for the iPod and Nest. They are giants in the tech world, but their talks are practical, with instructions for how to think like an engineer and build impressive products.

They encourage aspirations for a better future, but they also use their talks to explain their down-to-earth attitudes for solving basic problems first. Take it from Larry Page. For him and Google, the innovation in search is just beginning, and it all starts from cats and YouTube. Really, cats? That is not that inspiring, is it? But it is what needs to be done. You can't jump the hurdles before you learn to walk. And Google is doing exactly that. It’s teaching the machine to recognize cats first and, after they solve that problem, they will move on to the harder ones.

What can software engineers learn from Larry Page's TED Talk?

From self-driving cars to Google Glass and augmented reality, Google is experimenting with every possible technology. But, when the co-founder Larry Page was invited on the TED stage to talk "Where's Google going next?", he didn’t use his time to boast about some crazy ideas that might or might not work (we are looking at you Google Glass). What he spoke about were cats and YouTube. And he was not joking.

He acknowledged that Google is still in an early stage of information-gathering processes and search. For Page and Google, it is important to teach computers to understand context, and they are starting by teaching computers to recognize cats from images. Machine learning is the next big thing, according to Page, but to achieve that, you need to have a down-to-earth attitude to solve the problem first. Maybe autonomous vehicles are the future, but what matters in the present, is for Google to be more effective in search, to teach machines to recognize valuable information, and to connect the rest of the world with internet-carrying-balloons.

“Think about the future and change the present,” said the CEO of Alphabet, the parent company of Google. This short quote should be a lesson for every software engineer. You are allowed to dream about the glorious future, but what you first need to do is start building things, even if it involves mundane tasks about programming robots to recognize cats. When Google was working on Android, Page admitted that he felt guilty about it. At that time, Android was not important to him, but he saw the potential. “I was stupid. Android is the future,” he said.

The creator of Linux has a boring office and a cat

Linus Torvalds has changed the world not once, but twice! Because of the success of Linux and Git, he is now recognized as one of the greatest engineers who had a profound technological impact. But, what makes him an inspiration for every other coder out there, is that he still has this desire to do great things. His focus is on solving tech problems, not giving motivational talks.

“I'm perfectly happy with all the people who are walking around and just staring at the clouds ... but I'm looking at the ground, and I want to fix the pothole that's right in front of me before I fall in,” Torvalds said in his TED Talk.

Torvalds created Linux alone, without even thinking about collaboration or the idea to make it open source. He actually works alone at home, in a silence, with his cat. In his TED Talk, he said that his office is boring, but what is important to him is that it helps him focus on important work. He changed his mind when he shared his code with the developer community, and what he learned from that feedback changed the course of technology. People started giving him valuable feedback, which helped Torvalds -- 21 at the time, when he developed Linux -- to create the greatest software of all time.

He understood the potential of collaboration, even though he didn’t like working with other people. Torvalds is an introvert and apparently an angry one. But, despite his thinking that some members of the open source community are jerks, he continued working with them. He realized that you need to have a diverse community of software engineers and designers if you want to have a great product. You’ll need someone who can sell the code, others who could make a beautiful UI, and, sometimes, someone like Torvalds, who is angry and aggressive towards other people, but who has an enormous desire to create valuable technology.

What is Elon Musk's crazy dream?

Elon Musk might be considered one of the greatest innovators of all time, if he succeed in his mission to abolish gas cars. Sure, he dreams of how to get to Mars, or how to help humanity create a better future, but what he does is concentrate on the real problems that need to get fixed. For the CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, it is important to find a solution to the overall sustainable energy problem that, as he said in his TED Talk, he considers to be the “biggest problem that we have to solve this century.”

His TED Talk is captivating because you see Musk in full working mode, explaining technical details about his greatest ventures: Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity, in addition to advocating the importance of sustainable energy. He can talk in depth about his projects and the problems they face, but with clarity and sense so that everybody else will understand his blueprint. When asked about the innovative processes Tesla uses to make its electric vehicles, Musk doesn't just say that electric cars are the future -- he explains that "to accelerate the advent of electric transport… you have to come up with a really energy efficient car, so that means making it incredibly light, and so what you're seeing here is the only all-aluminum body and chassis car made in North America."

What makes his TED Talk great, is that you can sense his pragmatism. Musk doesn't need to sell you the idea of a future when everything will be better and greener, because he is building it.

Travis Kalanick's analytical building of Uber

Did you know that Uber existed at the beginning of the 19th century, albeit in some weird form? The founder, Travis Kalanick, explained in his TED Talk that the idea for Uber is not new, something like it existed before, but the timing wasn’t right. Uber was actually timed to be a success, based on careful research and analytics. Today, we have too many cars and, as Kalanick says, that might be the wrong approach, because “if you have to own a car, then that means 96 percent of the time your car is sitting idle in the parking lot.” And this is why Uber was a huge success story -- because they figured out what they needed to do to solve the problem of public transportation.

In his TED Talk, Kalanick explained that analyzing the transportation market was a key to finding a need for Uber, which went from a small company to a world-changer with over 6,500 employees. For him, the challenge was not just to solve one problem, but to make a carefully planned change. “We don’t want to solve easy problems, we like to solve the hardest,” said Mr. Kalanick in his talk.

Uber was made possible because the company researched rigorously and pinpointed a key area they could improve. And this is what you, as a software engineer, can learn from Kalanick’s talk. The insight from his critical thinking, coupled with the entrepreneurial excitement he had to solve a big problem, was what made Kalanick create Uber. Maybe, as a start, you can follow his lead by trying to find out facts to get excited over, and then discover that one problem that has the “wow factor.”

Tony Fadell on why it is important to look closer

Tony Fadell is famous for helping design the iPod and Nest, the Internet of Things company that Google bought for $3.2 billion. Although he is one of the greatest design thinkers today, in his TED Talk, he spoke only about the simple things. He spoke about how software engineers and designers should focus on making a big change by improving the little everyday things.

Fadell explained that the process of habituation is a great tool for humans to learn and get used to everyday challenges, like the daily job of driving cars. Without habituation, those daily tasks would be too exhausting. But, if you are a software engineer or a designer, habituation can be a bad thing when you need to improve a product. It may prevent you from noticing the little problems you’ve grown accustomed to. Thinking outside of the box is not a simple thing, but Fadell's advice may help you find a way to broaden your outlook to identify problems, and to look closer for how to use new techniques to fix them.

Take, for example, the creation of the Nest thermostat. Nest wanted to optimize the installation process for every customer by removing the unnecessarily large number of screws used. They tried designing a device that could mount on the wall with fewer screws, but it was equally as bad for the customers. Then they tried to design a unique screw, and -- although their investors were angry at them for wasting time on something they thought already existed -- Fadell and his team were convinced that “If we do this, we’ll sell more.” And it worked! Their belief should be a valuable lesson to every software engineer – focus on creating simple and beautiful products, without complicated code and with fewer bugs. Learn to look broader and to look closer at how to identify problems and find solutions to them. Make your product better.

What happens when computers become smarter than humans?

We all want a faster computer and a smarter iPhone, maybe even a better AI to talk to, like in the movie Her. But have you stopped to think about how smart computers can actually get? What will happen when they become more intelligent than humans?

In his TED Talk, Nick Bostrom, a philosopher from the Future of Humanity Institute, paints a realistic picture of a future with smart artificial intelligence. We are already building that future, or at least we dream of robots we can talk to or who can work for us. The current AI is not that intelligent, but we’ll soon see a fundamental change, once the AI becomes smarter than a mouse, then a chimpanzee and then smarter than humans.

“It will be the last innovation that humanity will ever make,” said Bostrom in his TED Talk. Everything will be designed by the smarter computers and decided by superior algorithms. And, like chimpanzee's fate is now determined by man, the fate of humanity will soon depend on superintelligence. Unless we do something about it. This dramatic vision of the future from Terminator can be avoided if engineers work smarter. Software engineers may dream of creating a super-intelligent AI one day, but they need to create it with responsibility in mind. With every product you code, you are coding it to help or harm other people.

How algorithms shape our world

Let's leave aside the futuristic artificial intelligence and look at the present. We already have the algorithms that are shaping the world, said Kavin Slavin, researcher, and professor at MIT. Algorithms are a code set on a mission, or as Slavin explains it, basically “the math that computers use to decide stuff,” with a job to discover and act upon unique things humans can’t see.

From algorithmic trading, to Wall Street and Netflix (which use code to find out more about the habits of their users), to Google and Facebook (which have software that delivers to you tailored search results or posts from friends you might like), there are hundreds of computers that are deciding things for us on an everyday basis. They are codes we can’t see, but which have the power to manipulate and “terraform” our culture.

Only with the liability of coders and software engineers who design algorithms, can we be sure that machines are put into a good use. The responsibility is not just to create a code that helps people, but to design it so we can understand the machine dialect. Because algorithms are already making an impact in this weird collaboration between nature and man... “And we will have to understand those [algorithms] as nature, and in a way, they are,” Slavin said in his TED Talk.

Beware the dangerously selective “filter bubbles”

Is a squirrel more important to you than a dying kid in Africa? Mark Zuckerberg says it may be. And this is not because the founder of Facebook has gone crazy, but because our own interests are guiding Facebook’s timeline to deliver to us news that we want to see. In hist TED Talk, Eli Pariser, the author of The Filter Bubble, explains that we live in our digital bubbles, in which we select information based on our interests and desires.

Your newsfeed is tailored to you by the constantly-learning-algorithm you know nothing about. This software selects pieces of information it knows you might like, and effectively leaves you in a filter bubble. One of those bubbles is created by Google search, which uses 57 signals to personally tailor your query results. There is no standard Google anymore, and you can't see that. Think, also, about your Facebook Newsfeed or Twitter Timeline, which are full of people you want to follow, not necessarily people you need to follow.

The idea of an open Internet, although it still exists, has failed to materialize. The information has passed from the human gatekeepers, like media outlets, to the new digital algorithms, which don’t have the embedded ethics that humans have to show us information that is really important. And software engineers are the creators of these new digital gatekeepers. The algorithms you create may one day become a crazy social experiment, manipulating people’s lives without them knowing it.

Hack a banana and change the world!

Ok, this will sound weird, but stay with us. Can you hack a banana? Think again, because the way the world works can be changed. Jay Silver, a Maker Research Scientist at Intel Labs, has discovered that changing the use of ordinary objects is possible. All objects we take for granted can be reshaped and rethought.

“This is how reality is made,” Silver said in his fascinating TED Talk. He studied the maker movement and how you can use creativity to reshape the world, as well as how to make people the agents of this change. He built the Makey Makey, a tool you can use to create awesome projects out of ordinary objects. Think in terms of using a banana instead of a piano, or hacking two pizza slices to work as a keyboard arrow keys.

His talk is one of the most unique TED Talks we’ve seen so far, but it is also one of the most inspiring talks that will make you rethink reality. If you think creatively and outside of the box, soon “you will start to see the landscape of your everyday life a little bit more like something you could express yourself with, and a little bit more like you could participate in designing the future of the way the world works.”

We hope that you found some inspiration to change the world. :) If you have any questions, or just want to say Hi, drop us a line at [email protected]. You can also follow us on Twitter @syncano or on github.com/Syncano.

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Viktor Dano

Viktor Dano

Writer @ Syncano