Feb 19 Meet Thong Nguyen, Our New Chief Technology Officer
As Chief Technology Officer, Thong Nguyen uses a human-centric approach to connecting technology and business to accelerate positive change. We sat down with him to learn more about his journey and his views on the biggest tech challenges faced by companies today.
You once told us: As a kid, you learned how to break things and put them back together and you were able to turn that into a career. Could you walk us through the milestones of your career and tell us more about how you have evolved as a technologist?
I spent a big chunk of my youth taking things apart to figure out how they work and using those insights to create something better. Over the course of my career I’ve been fortunate to be able to apply this not only to kid’s toys and my parents’ household electronics, but on larger and much more complex systems.
I started programming when I was six and built my first game based on what I’d learned from dissecting others. I even spent countless hours writing security code so people couldn’t pirate it. I made $1.75 on this venture by selling it to friends. Not shabby for 2nd grade, but definitely had some room for improvement.
Early in my career I operated a business that built custom PCs and provided technical support services. A portion of my clients were senior citizens, many whom didn’t know how to click a mouse, and through these interactions I learned an enormous amount about patience, compassion, trust and empathy. I also picked up a large amount of experience around change management and helping people cope with extreme changes, such as, “Where did my files go?” and “I had no idea that I couldn’t wash my computer in the bathtub.”
As my career has progressed, I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to guide increasingly larger systems of people and technology from concept to execution. Along the way I had the chance to learn from very smart people and to directly observe that things don’t tend to behave the same way in the wild as they do in a controlled environment. Learning to anticipate, design and prototype for these differences in scale has been invaluable in ensuring success and driving change.
We have gotten to know you as a very thoughtful, humanist individual with a deep interest in how the world works. How has your passion for technology shaped your view on humanity?
I mentioned earlier that I enjoy taking gadgets apart to learn how they work. Similarly, I also enjoy decomposing and reconstructing human behavior to test new ways to approach group problem solving. As I advanced in my career, I started building a better understanding and appreciation for systems that involve groups of people, and this eventually led into my extracurricular studies in behavioral psychology.
Nowadays, I think that my passion for helping people equally shapes my view on technology, and that this balance more closely reflects how the world actually works. There is a symbiotic relationship between technology and humanity, and they help each other make progress. At least until the robots take over.
In your experience, what are the biggest technological challenges companies are facing? What are their biggest opportunities?
I think that the biggest technological challenges faced by companies today are the ones actually rooted in human behavior.
The first challenge I’d highlight is connected understanding and execution. Business teams often have a very different context than the technology teams, and many organizations have trouble spanning the differences in culture, language, level of detail, and empathy. If we were to think of these functions as parts of a brain, their mappings often couldn’t be more different. There are newer breeds of organizations that are fluent in both—and they pose an evolutionary threat to those who are not able to bridge the gaps.
The second challenge I’d highlight is connected purpose. Just as FMRI scans have shown that humans use less than 20 percent of their brains during a complicated task, I would argue that many organizations are using less than 20 percent of their collective “brain power”—even as they are struggling to stay ahead of disruption. I think there are opportunities to find better ways to drive collective purpose throughout an entire organization, and also being able to connect those hearts and minds toward a common goal in order to transform that power into forward momentum.
Please tell us more about your new role at Rêve. What are you looking forward to bringing to the team in terms of growing our capabilities?
Well, let me first say that the team at Rêve is fantastic. Kristin and Brad have done an amazing job at building a team and culture that’s innovative, supportive and results-oriented. Aside from being a great place to work, this is a strong foundation upon which to build great things.
In my role as CTO, I’ll be leading the growth and development of Rêve’s technology capabilities. We’ll be co-creating new ways to bring strategy, service design, capability building and technology together to produce tangible results more effectively.
In my past roles at companies such as Best Buy and Target I’ve been fortunate to lead initiatives to transform not only customer experiences but also to reinvent entire legacy technology platforms and to connect technology and business—and I look forward to bringing that experience into the mix.
What excites you most about the future of technology?
Right now across the many areas of technology advancement, I think that virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) hold a lot of promise. I’m doing some interesting work in that space now and it’s pretty incredible how many different systems in your brain can be engaged simultaneously. It has the potential to quickly go beyond gaming and disrupt many of the daily activities we take for granted today.
What I’m really excited about is how these things can be used to help people. At the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s hospital, they’re using Oculus Rifts to bring sick kids experiences beyond the hospital, and at the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab people are researching how it can be used as a tool to build empathy. We are still in the early days of this medium and there is a lot of experimentation going on, which makes it all the more interesting.
Beyond VR, I’m interested in how technology will continue to accelerate inter-connectivity across humanity—and how continued diversification of tech talent will change technology from something “they” do to something “we” do. I’m excited to be a part of that change.