Exclusive: Alan Kay on Innovation

ODBMS.ORG, the Internet’s most up-to-date educational and research portal on object database technology, has continued its interview series labelled “10 Questions on Innovation” to put object databases into the greater context of innovation. In the latest sequel, Alan Kay, one of the earliest pioneers of object-oriented programming, personal computing, and graphical user interfaces, shares his thoughts on innovation.

Alan Kay invented or co-invented a whole string of technologies, that shape today’s technology: Object-oriented programming; Smalltalk; the 1968 FLEX Machine, a desktop computer with graphical user interface and object-oriented operating system; the Dynabook, a laptop computer for children; Alto, the first networked PC; and participated in the design of the ARPAnet. He is also the author of the most famous quote on innovation: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

In the context of object database technology, his remarks on the success criteria for innovation are particularly enlightening. He claims that a lot depends on the time scale of a requisite change. He sees himself more of an inventor than an innovator. Someone else has to get the stuff into the larger world. And that’s the role of innovators: “limited invention and ability to couple to existing structures.”

Kay further elaborates, that innovators need a certain personality type. While a lot of different types can be successful, the ability to compulsively focus on a goal (short or long term) seems to be common across types. He alludes to the inherent tension in these people: “You’ve got to have lots of ideas, you’ve got to get rid of most of them, you’ve got to think that the visions are doable.”

Contact ODBMS.ORG at editor@odbms.org.

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