Forward Thinking With Historical Precedent

This past weekend I watched The Imitation Game and it got me thinking quite a lot, not only about the Ultra project/Bletchley Park, but also about the many parallels drawn between Alan Turing’s work and Google as well as Silicon Valley as a whole.

There is certainly no mistaking the revolutionary work that Turing did during WWII. Deciphering the Enigma through the creation of a machine that would use brute force analyses to churn through all the possibilities led to the advent of the modern day computer. In recognition and respect of his work, Google even sponsored the New York screening of the film and invited people to take part in a code breaking challenge.

In learning about this, along with Turing’s original method for recruiting people onto his team back in 1942 by placing a crossword puzzle in the Daily Telegraph (image credit to Charis Theobald), I couldn’t help but remember back when I first moved to Boston and a mysterious billboard showed up in Harvard Square:

google billboard

Turns out, this was posted by Google as a method of recruitment with the final page of the website inviting you to submit your resume. The parallels between this approach and Turing’s crossword puzzle are undeniable to me, and reflect not only a clever recruitment method to join a creative and innovative institution, but perhaps a homage to Turing himself.


In the film, Keira Knightley’s character Joan Clarke is portrayed as a lowly secretary that was able to complete the crossword puzzle (and subsequent testing) well under the time that Turing had set as the goal. In reality, Joan Clarke was well educated and was independently brought on board as part of the code breaking team. Even so, the movie portrayal of Clarke again echoed to me some of the more recent interviews with top Google[X] team members where they talk about shifting focus away from hiring a specialized individual for a specific position to hiring talented (and “T-Shaped”) individuals. The logic is that like the movie version of Joan Clarke, if you possess a certain level of ability, then you’ll be able to adapt and excel at the task at hand.

This is one of the most fascinating things to me about how many of these major institutions in the Bay Area function. To have a goal of bringing together multi-talented individuals that each have a breadth of experience and capability paired with deep understanding of one (or more) fields to solve a problem is quite unconventional in the rest of the nation and the world. We are more used to filling position Y with someone that went to school/has experience in/got a degree in Y, rather than filling the position with someone that has the capability and acumen based on their CV, experience and innate ability to fulfill the requirements of position Y.

Google is certainly not alone in this approach. IDEO, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft all recognize and identify T-Shaped individuals, and build teams, facilities and initiatives with such people.

The apparent innate ability of Keira Knightley’s (fictionalized) character in the movie also speaks to the individuals that were responsible for the genesis of what we know today as Silicon Valley. Wozniak, Jobs, Gates, and Allen among others (Zuckerberg for one) all dropped out of college to pursue their passions and ultimate success. There is constant discussion in the startup/innovation realm about how formal degrees do not necessarily equate ability. Although the subject is parodied in Mike Judge’s show Silicon Valley (clip here) and demonstrated by Knightley’s character, there is truth in this as well.

To me, the movie comes at a pivotal time in this age of innovation, startups and tech. Clearly, we have gained inspiration directly and indirectly from the concepts and work of Dr. Turing, while at the same time the fictionalized components of the movie reflect modern day ideas (and perhaps ideals) injected into the storyline.

The Intersection of Medicine and Design

With the release of the Apple Watch this week for public purchase, we are now seeing the implementation of wearables that have the ability to pick up potentially clinically applicable data from the user. Google’s Fit and Apple’s HealthKit are further blurring the lines of performance tracking and relevant health information. All the while, the packaging is slick with clean interfaces and cutting edge hardware integration.

More than ever, design is playing a big role in medicine and health care. In everything from medical device designs, where the end user is the physician, on through publicly accessible technology such as the Apple Watch, design clearly matters. A significant amount of effort (and funding) is going towards ergonomics, form, interactivity and ease of use. Companies such as IDEO have been working in this space for decades with their innovative methodology regarding human-centric design, and even the upcoming Dell School of Medicine in Austin recently announced the collaborative creation of the Design Institute for Health (helmed by IDEO alums Stacey Chang and Beto Lopez) where the focus will be design thinking and creative solutions in the health care field.

This past week while working with other surgeons performing laparoscopic colon resections, I was struck by the sharp contrast of decades-old instrument designs and the recent device additions to the operating room. Coviden’s Ligasure energy device we use now is distinctly ergonomic, intuitive and a well thought out blend of form and function. Down to the UI of the power source LCD screen, and even the audible tones to indicate stage of cauterization, it’s a device that is a great example of how device companies have a major focus on ease of use and aesthetics. In contrast, we are still using stainless steel forceps and needle drivers who have correct methods and techniques of holding and using that are not immediately obvious.

The field of medicine and especially the field of surgery is one of legacy and history. Instruments and procedures are named after pioneering individuals whose names are always spoken in a reverent tone. As such, these instruments shouldn’t be immediately rendered obsolete as they are a critical and fundamental part of the surgeon’s armamentarium, but perhaps there is a way to improve upon them.

Aesthetics, design, UI/UX are factoring heavily into products in every field and medicine is no exception. If anything, it is now a requirement. Cumbersome, overly complex or clunky designs are no longer acceptable in new products entering the market.

When I design my devices for the OR, ease of use and intuitive-ness are high on the list of importance. With more recent studies on the IDEO methodology and through conversations with the wonderful individuals at IDEO, I feel that they have helped me refine this process and approach in an intangible, but fundamental way. Once the intended function of the device is established, build it so that form IS function has become the goal. This is where human-factors engineering comes in to play, as designing with the end-user in mind and thinking about when and where the device will be used is what will ensure its (hopefully) ultimate success in implementation.

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