Regarding Uber and what we mean by “industry disruption”

Some thoughts on using the crowdsourced driving service for the first time, and why no taxi companies have adopted the simple technology themselves

So it’s finally happened — I’ve finally taken an Uber for the first time ever. For those who have been living under a rock — or those who live in small towns where the service isn’t prevalent — Uber is known as a “crowdsourced” car-riding service; so a lot like a taxi, in other words, except that the drivers are just ordinary everyday citizens, using their ordinary everyday cars, with the entire system hooked together through a clever app that lives on everyone’s cellphones, drivers and riders alike. It’s a prime example of what tech people call an “industry disruptor” — the industry in this case being the taxi industry, of course (and to a lesser extent, the private black-car livery industry), industries that are losing so profoundly much money these days because of Uber that they are literally convincing many local governments to pass special laws simply to protect them from going out of business for good.

And now that I’ve used the service myself, I can easily see why Uber has suddenly become so threatening to the taxi industry, because it was quite literally the most convenient and trouble-free transportation option I’ve ever used in the 22 years I’ve now lived car-free here in Chicago. To begin with, I simply opened the Uber app, which read the GPS coordinates of my phone and asked me if I wanted to start my trip from where I currently was; then it asked for my destination; then it showed me what an approximate fare was going to be, within a five-dollar guess (I was going from Uptown to Hyde Park, which it estimated to be $17 to 23, with the final amount being exactly in the middle at $20, which by the way is a lot cheaper than a traditional taxi as well). Then it prompted me to make an official call for a car whenever I was ready; and once I did, a driver picked up the call a mere 30 seconds later, and was at my apartment three minutes after that. And that’s all there was to it — the 20-minute ride was uneventful, the $20 was instantly transferred from my Paypal account to my driver’s Paypal account the moment I closed the car door, and I was prompted the next time I opened my phone to give my driver a five-star rating if I was pleased, which I was and is what I did. (For what it’s worth, Uber keeps somewhere from 20 to 30 percent of each fare as their cut, depending on who you ask, meaning that my driver made somewhere around $14 to $16 for twenty minutes of work, or right around $45 an hour; and tipping Uber drivers is banned by the company, despite what 24-year-old hipsters with too much discretionary income might think of it.)

But here’s the really fascinating thing — that after examining the app that makes the whole system work, I realized that it’s actually really simple stuff; maybe a bit daunting to non-coders, but believe me when I say that the following task list could be largely fulfilled even by a newbie coding bootcamp graduate like myself (and in fact this might make for an interesting bootcamp final project, to basically make an Uber clone just to prove that one can)…

— You need to be able to read the GPS coordinates of a cellphone, which is super-simple from a coding standpoint;

— You need to match that data to a mapping system using a third-party API, much like the popular one Google Maps maintains for free use;

— You need to also call on a third-party API for exchanging money, much like the ones Paypal and Square offer to outside developers;

— You need a database somewhere that securely holds everyone’s information — names, car types, reputation score, payment info, profile photo, etc — one of the first things we learned how to do in bootcamp;

— And you need a way for riders to call for rides from the pickup points where they are, and a way for drivers to respond to those calls while on the go, featuring such “fancy” details as real-time alerts on their phones when each of these things happen, something known among coders as a “CRUD system” (for Creating new events, Reading those events, Updating those events and Deleting those events, the four steps behind nearly every web application that’s ever been developed).

And that’s really what makes the idea of this being an “industry disruptor” so intriguing; because while most of the general public defines that term as “someone bringing the kind of tech to an established industry that no one else in that industry can afford or understand,” it’s quite clear in this case that any taxi company on the planet could hire a couple of junior developers for a couple thousand dollars and have their very own proprietary Uber-style system for their cab company a few weeks later. Every single taxi company in an Uber-equipped city has the means to save themselves, literally for the cost of something like half a day’s profits; yet not a single one of these taxi companies have done so.

And that gets us to the heart of the issue — it’s not that they’re technologically or financially unable to do so, it’s that they’re emotionally and mentally unable to do so, which is what we really mean when we say that a such-and-such a company is an “industry disruptor.” The people who run these taxi companies do so because they’re comforted by the unthinking tradition of it all; they like owning cab companies because the way cab companies work literally hasn’t changed in 150 years, and they like the fact that they can run their company without having to contemplate even the slightest new innovation, the slightest new way of doing things. It’s their own mindset that is sowing the seeds of their own destruction, which is the fascinating part of a “disruptor” like Uber, or Amazon, or Netflix, or any of another hundred examples; it’s not like these companies are doing anything that these other companies couldn’t do themselves, simply that the disrupting companies are being run by people who aren’t entrenched in this century-old, unchanging mindset about “how things are supposed to be done.”

So that leaves us with one question — what are you doing to disrupt and challenge the way things “have always been done” in whatever industry you work in? You wouldn’t be reading this coding blog if you weren’t interested in that answer; and as the example of Uber today shows us, it’s not like you particularly need a huge amount of money, staff or other resources to bring a profound change to whatever it is that you want to disrupt. Instead, it’s all about looking at the ways “it’s always been done” and asking yourself, “Well, why is that? Why can’t we change the way it’s always been done? And if so, how do we do that?” That’s the question all of us coders should be asking ourselves every day, and it’s the crucial thing that separates the future industry leaders and billionaire entrepreneurs from just another cog in the machine, grinding the gears like the million cogs in the hundred years before them. I urge all of you to be thinking about these kinds of questions every day, in whatever chosen profession you’ve decided to work in yourself.