It has never been my good fortune to work for a company with decent computer systems.
When I started on Wall Street in 1988, we joked that the firm’s idea of new technology was “two Styrofoam cups and a piece of string.” Time Inc. tested out a publishing system that was tough to use and yet, oops, didn’t become the industry standard. Two years ago at News Corp. I was told that a) the paper was put together on a software program designed in the ’70s and b) I couldn’t have remote access to the database because it wouldn’t be “secure.” What was I going to do, go in and change the names of vice presidential candidates? I finally quit bringing my laptop to meetings because it obviously made my co-workers jumpy, but I didn’t understand the modern corporation’s slavish devotion to paper and pencil and still don’t.
For one thing, if I use a piece of looseleaf to note down every little jiggle and fart of my brain, it’s going to be hard to save the rainforest. For another, it’s really tough to play Tetris with a pencil and paper.
Real estate, at least, is an industry that embraces the capabilities of the computer era: 360-degree video screenings! Completely computerized databases! Tetris straight to your cell phone!
We tend to take these little miracles for granted: How many of you started long enough ago that you kept listings on index cards?
But there’s a long distance between capability and actuality, as I discovered when I sat down at my little home computer and found out that my local multiple listing service DOESN’T RUN on a Macintosh.
For those of you who don’t actually use an MLS, realize it’s the main program in a Realtor’s life – the multiple listing service is a database of houses for sale and houses sold. If I want to run comparables on a house I want to buy, I need access to see what houses have sold for on that block and in that neighborhood.
And I don’t want to have to go to Kinko’s (where last night I burned thirty bucks of computer time putting together some CMAs) to do it.
Steve Jobs, are you listening?
The band-aid will be for me to buy an emulator, a piece of software that makes my Mac function more like a PC. It just burns me; imagine you needed to use your Porsche as your company car, but first you had to retrofit it so it would perform more like an Audi.
But the whole my-MLS-won’t-work episode made me think, too, of the larger problems of real estate technology. I’m all for adding more data and more images to our knowledge base – that’s part of what my journalism was about – but do we have an end in sight? Once we have every house in every state videotaped and Google Earth-ed, then what? Will all those images be even remotely searchable? It’s tough to find comps by “style” in my local MLS now, with Victorians misidentified as Colonials, and sellers reluctant to use the word “Ranch” – how much tougher will it be when we have to line up footage against footage?
I’ve been reading like crazy as part of starting up my business (and, ahem, it’s not like the phone rings very often.) One of the pieces of advice I really like comes from Robert Shemin: take Fridays off. Not go-to-the-movies off, but take a day a week to get a little distance on your business, a day to compare your performance against your goals. In other words, take a little time away from producing information, and spend some time processing it.
In terms of technology and our industry, I don’t think this has to take the form of consultants and white papers and meetings in conference rooms (yuck!), but it’s worth thinking about. Everyone loves to be near their gadgets; putting your cell phones and PDAs on the table at Lever House is just an updated version of cowboys setting their guns on the table at a saloon. And I enjoy walking around tricked out like I’m in an episode of “Alias,” but it’s worth taking a grander view: Our business is computerizing underneath us, what do we want it to do?
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