Digital 2.0 – The Modern Digital Executive
Want to Transform Your Organization? Throw Out Your Five-Year Plan and Prepare for a Neverending Story
Author: Geremy Reiner , Associate Principal, Prime TSR
The minute you stop chasing trends is the minute you can build a real business.
If I could sum up Neil Misak’s ethos in a sentence, that’d be it.
Neil’s an award-winning technology leader and innovator, but his relationship with technology is unique. To Neil, sometimes less is more. He doesn’t chase trends, and he doesn’t believe the new-means-better hype.
Meet Neil Misak
He’s an educator with a law degree from Northwestern University, but he also holds secondary business and engineering degrees from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Neil has served Boeing, Motorola, and others and is currently a Channel Sales Executive for Microsoft. He’s also the Co-Founder of REUSO, a passion project that turned into a breakthrough business.
During our interview, Neil shared his perspective on innovation, told me why he thinks the next great wave of tech startups won’t happen because they invented a new AI algorithm, how and why he started REUSO, and much more.
It was a fascinating conversation, and I’m pleased to share it.
Biggest Lessons Learned About Transforming Companies Digitally
I wanted to know what Neil has learned over twelve years of helping companies transform. Here’s what he said.
Embrace a less-is-more philosophy: Don’t waste time inventing a new solution until you’ve already exhausted what exists. To explain why he thinks less is more, Neil told me the REUSO story.
To understand the company model, first, think about the thousands of single-use beer cups fans toss into stadium cans after the game or the plastic carry-out container your Pad Thai came in.
People use them once, and then they’re off to the landfill, where they sit forever.
After watching one-use containers go into the trashcan one too many times, Neil and his Co-Founder Eva Bugg came up with an idea:
“What if we tagged these containers, tracked them, and created a circular economy around them? Less waste, more money saved.”
Thus, REUSO was born.
Recycling is ancient technology. It works—but sluggishly. But what if recycling went digital? What if it utilized a robust tracking system that kept data on supply, sanitization processes, container lifespan, and cost?
The technology already existed. The REUSO founders simply needed to use it in a new way.
I think Neil said it best: “The next great wave of tech startups won’t necessarily happen because of the next great AI algorithm, but because companies found a way to apply an existing AI algorithm to a novel situation.”
REUSO may not have “invented the next great AI algorithm,” but they found a way to reduce waste, save money, and shift consumers’ relationships with plastic.
Is that not innovative?
What Do Innovation, Transformation, and Modernization Mean to You?
WHAT DO INNOVATION, TRANSFORMATION, AND MODERNIZATION MEAN TO YOU?
REUSO offers a nice illustration of an innovative model, but how does Neil define the word?
“When I hear ‘innovation,’” says Neil, I immediately think of Moore’s Law, which essentially states that every 18 months, technology becomes half as bulky and twice as fast.”
Neil’s a Motorola guy, so I knew a cell phone analogy was in order.
“I came from a world of archaic devices that took up the entire trunk of a car. After a while, it’d all fit on a kitchen table. Now they sit in the palm of our hands and are faster than ever.”
That’s the perfect analogy for Moore’s Law, Neil says, “and how I think about digital transformation—that is, increasing access to technology and harnessing advancements in speed. Then pioneering entirely new industries and elevating antiquated ones.”
In short, do more with less.
Biggest Impact on Digital Innovation For The Next 10 Years
Want to drive your organization forward and innovate? Neil suggests educating yourself. Then look for opportunities to share your knowledge.
Neil is a life-long learner and passionate educator. So if he’s not in a traditional classroom, he’s on the prowl for the next teachable moment.
A decade ago, computer science wasn’t part of Microsoft’s Cloud Platform System curriculum. Neil saw the gap and volunteered to teach introductory computer science courses to his teammates.
No one made Neil do this. He could’ve sat on the problem, done his work, and collected his check. Instead, he seized the opportunity and transformed it into a teachable moment that moved the organization forward.
But that’s just the start. If organizations want to be around in 10 years, they must look to the next generation of tech leaders, Neil tells me. “K-12 entrepreneurship curriculum needs help, especially when you consider that more than half of Gen-Z are aspiring business owners,” he says.
Tech leaders can turn a blind eye and say, “Hey, not my problem. I have a business to run.” To Neil, that’s a shortsighted attitude—and why he spends time in the classroom.
“I actively volunteer throughout District 214 and have been involved in pitch competitions for years. I’m also a teacher and program coordinator for Code.org and have been for nearly a decade.”
While he admits that he doesn’t have a silver bullet to solve the ed-tech entrepreneurship problem, he’s “that much closer” to where [he wants] the next generation of tech entrepreneurs to be.”
Companies That Are Surprising
Neil currently leads a cross-functional team at Microsoft, driving a $110M+ cloud business across Midwest enterprises. He’s also a multi-award-winning team member and recipient of numerous Microsoft accolades, including the Top Performance Award, Hero Award, two Hackathon 1st Place submissions, and many others.
Neil’s obviously one of Microsoft’s most valuable assets—but he’s also one of the company’s biggest fans. When I asked him if there are any companies he’s keeping an eye on, he laughed and said—you guessed it—Microsoft.
The Microsoft story is a fun one, and Neil’s excited to see where it goes.
“A decade ago, who would you rather say you worked for: Microsoft, Apple, or Google?” Neil asks. Odds are you didn’t say the name of the company that started with “M.”
It’s true. Microsoft wasn’t “cool” 10 years ago, and its stock price reflected that “uncoolness.”
“But,” Neil says, “think about everything Microsoft CEO Satya Nandella has accomplished since. He sees innovation not as a spinoff or a side tangent, but the very essence of the company.”
Under Nandella’s watch, Microsoft transformed “uncool” into a multi-billion dollar hardware innovator developing cutting-edge products like HoloLens. They’re also catching up in the AWS space.
To Neil, Microsoft is a company that “exemplifies putting innovation at the cornerstone of a company.” They try new things, double down on innovative business models, and introduce college-hire programs that bring Gen-Z to the leadership table. “I’ve been proud to be part of the journey,” he says.
Digital 2.0 Hot Seat: Real, Hype, Or WTF
I closed our conversation with a series of rapid-fire questions covering four of my favorite topics: the Metaverse, crypto, Elon Musk, and remote/hybrid work.
Are they real, hype, or do they just make you scratch your head and say, “WTF?” Here’s what Neil had to say:
The Metaverse: “Living in a visual simulation for days on end isn’t real. But the Metaverse could be a digital accompaniment or package that allows organizations to track data through a software dashboard. I’ve been digitizing things for over a decade, so if we’re talking about the Metaverse as a digital component, I think it’s real.”
Crypto: “Blockchain technology and digital ledgers are real, but crypto is hype. I’ve spent enough time understanding the intricacies underpinning our legal system, not to mention the securities on the financial side. So it’s going to be a lifetime before we have a truly decentralized currency that’s adopted by the masses.”
Elon Musk: “Look, Musk has the opportunity to be solidified and stand amongst the truly elite. He could be the Einstein of our generation. Yet, he’s focused on publicity and NFTs.
Musk is the perfect example of why we need to shift the narrative of entrepreneurship. You’ve got someone who built an incredible company but chooses to embark on public, Kanye-West-style escapades to shift markets up or down instead of propelling the industry forward.