What I Learned from Kevin Spacey at IBM Impact

kevinspacey82722182I attended my first IBM Impact conference last week, and it was an eye-opening experience. So much going on with WebSphere, the mainframe’s 50th anniversary, and so many mentions of IBM’s new developer tool BlueMix, I could hardly keep up.

The event was topped off by an awesome Imagine Dragons concert at the Venetian’s Sands Expo and then Kevin Spacey’s keynote. I have to say Spacey surprised me with how easily his message spoke to the IT folks in the room. Here are some highlights:

Always Get Off to a Great Start
Spacey captivated the huge concert hall full of IBMers right from the start with stories about new media technology, an impressive Bill Clinton impression, and many Netflix references.

“I know what you are thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ But I belong here. I’m standing here in front of you, and I feel like I’m almost among peers,” Spacey said. “After all, a lot of you here have degrees from MIT, and I can say ‘MIT’ so thank you colleagues for being here this morning.”

But Spacey is no fool. He knew his role at IBM Impact, with his keynote scheduled in the last spot. “I understand my purpose at this shindig. I am your incentive for persevering to the end of this conference,” he said. “I’m like the lollipop at the end of the doctor’s visit.”

Spacey put much consideration into what he was going to speak about at IBM Impact. Some of it so golden, he used it again on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” four nights later.

“So I’ve been thinking of what I might speak about today—something that might capture your attention and interest. For example, I could recount the story of when Jason Batemen almost strangled that poor waiter in the catering tent on the set of ‘Horrible Bosses’ or maybe let you in on why David Letterman is actually retiring,” Spacey said. “But I think no, that lowbrow stuff is not of interest to you. You’re a group of serious-minded professionals. You might prefer a 45-minute dissertation on dynamic I/O reconfiguration, LPAR isolation, an IPI for capacity provisional management. That’s right, I know your f***ing terms. And I’d do all that if I had any f***ing idea what any of that meant.”

We were hooked for the next 30 minutes.

The Accelerated Technology Revolution
It wasn’t all laughs. Spacey got serious when he talked about the pace of technology and not only in entertainment.

“Something really important to me and I think to all of us here is this accelerated technology revolution happening around us, which is completely changing the game,” he said. “It’s amazing how it’s leveling the playing field in countless ways and how it’s expanding access and extending opportunity to every corner of our society.”

Spacey explained how when he and director David Fincher first pitched the idea of their hit TV show “House of Cards” to the television networks, they all requested a pilot. Neither Spacey nor Fincher wanted to do a pilot for “House of Cards” so they went an untraditional route via Netflix, the on-demand Internet streaming media website. Netflix agreed to back two full seasons of “House of Cards” sight unseen.

“House of Cards” was Netflix’s first foray into original programming, and what made the show especially newsworthy was when Netflix decided to release the show’s entire first two seasons at once.

“This gave audiences, for the first time, the ability to watch a television show on their own terms, whenever and wherever they please. The audience wants to be in control,” he said. “All across the board, technology is giving consumers greater power, more information, and it’s creating an increased urgency for business to innovate. It’s no longer about just connecting with people. It’s more than that. It’s about engaging with customers one on one in their own space and time.”

Technology Empowers Rule Breakers
Spacey was on a roll now and emphasized the importance of how technology is empowering the rule breakers.

“Programming now comes in all shapes and sizes: six-second Vines, five-minute webisodes, 13-hour mini series, on your smartphone, on your iPad, on your 50-inch LCD, in the headrest of your car, in the corners of your Google Glass,” he said. “The device and length are irrelevant today. The audience doesn’t care about the platform; they just care about the content.”

Spacey said labels are useless now because for more and more of us, there is no difference between watching the “Hunger Games” on an iPad, watching “Between Two Ferns” on our TV, or watching “Game of Thrones” on a desktop computer.

“We don’t care anymore that a show is scheduled at 8 o’clock on a Tuesday night,” he said. “The rules don’t matter anymore.”

Technology Empowers Risk Takers
If “House of Cards” wasn’t testament enough to his risk taking, Spacey has also self-released his documentary with “American Beauty” director Sam Mendes called “NOW: in the Wings on a World Stage.” “NOW” is about Spacey’s 200 performances across three continents of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, “Richard III.”

Not exactly the makings of a sure-fire hit, but Spacey was passionate about the project and aware of the associated risks.

“Place your bet on those who never settle. Place your bet on those who are never afraid to take a chance. Place your bet on those who try to anticipate what their audiences want before they even realize it,” he said. “Aspire to be innovative. We all need to be a step ahead of our audiences, to surprise them, to break the boundaries, and to take them to new places, because if there is one thing that overlaps between business and art, it’s that the risk takers are rewarded.”

Then he brought it back around for the IT folks.

“It’s the natural evolution when markets are disrupted that other companies are going to want to join the bandwagon. Advances in technology and the rise in cloud and mobile, in particular, mean that these disruptive times are for everyone no matter what industry you’re in,” Spacey said. “The same trends that are toppling the old structures are opening up new doors for both creators and consumers in my industry and are the same trends that are reshaping the landscape in yours.”

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