At first glance, the worlds of football and technology could not be further apart. One is characterised by bronzed, muscular, semi-illiterate athletes. The other by bespectacled, nerdy coders. But moving these unhelpful stereotypes aside, there is an interesting parallel emerging between the players of the beautiful game and the possessors of beautiful minds.
Elite footballers and elite programmers have one obvious quality in common: they are both elite. This means they are highly skilled, small in number and thus high in demand. The very best footballers and the very best programmers receive the same social honorific – they are both referred to as “geniuses” in their respective fields.
Despite the scarcity of these “geniuses”, their relative contribution is enormous. Footballers play a game that is watched religiously by some 2 billion people around the world – week in and week out. The expectations, wagers, disappointments and desires of millions of fans, rest upon their skinny legs.
Similarly, a small number of elite programmers are responsible for building the digital architecture of the future. Specialists in fields such as AI are constructing systems that will power companies, autonomous transport, governments and financial markets. As a result, the integrity of our social systems rest upon their skinny lines of code.
Scouting for talent
These elite industries share some interesting economic characteristics. The most obvious is massive financial compensation. Experts in technical fields like machine learning are moving to the private sector for whopping transfer fees. One prominent example is Anthony Levandowski, the former director of Google’s autonomous vehicle project, who reportedly took home over $120 million since 2007. Further, these elite levels of remuneration are not solely confined to the upper echelons of the digital transfer market. As the New York Times recently revealed, even postgraduates fresh out of university with PhDs in machine learning are taking home annual salaries of between $300,000 to $500,000.
Much like football scouts who prowl the touch lines of youth games, the search for machine learning experts is increasingly targeting the young. Over the past few years, university departments have been plundered. In one fell swoop, Uber famously hired 40 experts from Carnegie Mellon’s prestigious autonomous vehicle department. Other universities have experienced similar raids, including Stanford and the University of Washington in the US; Montreal and Toronto in Canada and Cambridge University and UCL in the UK.
To circumvent these huge transfer fees, the search for tech talent has moved to the developing world. Technology companies such as Microsoft and Google have begun scouring university departments from China to India and Mexico.
And just as football academies nurture the development of promising young players in the hope of finding a star, programming is also beginning to establish academy-like models. One organisation called Andela, uses rigorous tests to find the most brilliant young mathematicians from across Nigeria. As the social impact investor Sarah Cone told me, “their acceptance rate is 0.7 per cent – the programme is harder to get into than Harvard.” Once these brilliant individuals have been spotted, Andela provides mentorship and training, with the ultimate aim to place them in world-leading companies.
Andela’s business model points to an undeniably positive notion: genius is evenly distributed around the world. Just as you may find the next Pele kicking a ball against the wall of a favela in Rio, you may also find the next Alan Turing living in a slum in Lagos or New Delhi. It offers a glimmer of hope for alleviating the vast waste of human potential that our current system engenders.
Managing brilliant minds
How these young, rare and brilliant minds are managed will greatly influence the development of companies, countries and continents.
At company level, having teams of very young, richly rewarded employees will come with consequences. Young people are wonderfully inventive, creative and unconstrained in their thinking. Yet these same qualities can manifest as impetuosity, recklessness and inexperience. As tech commentator Scott Galloway has pointed out, the average age of employees at Facebook is 28 years old. This may foster a restless spirit to innovate; as well as a reckless disregard for established rules and regulations.
Beyond conduct, the other main issue is competition. Organisations like Andela provide a small number of brilliant individuals with a potentially life-altering opportunity. The stated hope is that the skills, capital and experience that these individuals acquire will percolate back to their home countries, in something akin to an intellectual “trickle-down” effect. Whether this happens, remains to be seen. Yet models like those developed by the African Leadership Academy, which contractually oblige bright young things to return to their home countries after receiving a world-class education, may help stem the brain-drain.
Today, the world of technology generally obeys the same principles as football. Money talks. Just as increasing amounts of capital and skill have accumulated in the major football clubs, the same can be seen with the major technology companies. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester City and Bayern Munich are the equivalents of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. Their dominance at once lights up the playing field and devastates the competition.
Is this killing the beauty of the game? It is too early to say. But perhaps the technology industry would benefit from a Leicester City moment.