Opinion and Return on Technology

Economy rife with high-tech hustlers

October 5, 2013

One of my favorite business books is a bit of a shocker to most people. It’s “Off the Books,” by Sudhir Venkatesh. It uses one of my favorite business words: hustling. Others may dislike the seediness associated with the word, but I like it for its earthy pragmatism. There are millions of business hustlers today, and technology is a big part of their work. Lots of us are high-tech hustlers. We just don’t think of ourselves like that.

Venkatesh was once a naïve sociology student in Chicago who allowed exuberance to overcome better judgment when he walked unaccompanied into one of Chicago’s toughest and most dangerous public housing districts to do research. Eventually, the gang lords and residents came to accept his wide-eyed questioning, and he got a deep view into the culture, including the surprisingly mundane business practices of gang leadership. His book “Gang Leader for a Day” forever changed my view of the poor.

Later, Venkatesh came out with another book that focused on a poverty-stricken area, but this time from a business and economic perspective.

“Off the Books” explores how the poor work. It’s a myth that the poor sit around idle all day on the public dole. Instead, they’re constantly working at myriad poorly paid jobs, from the licit to the illicit. Some work on cars, others are prostitutes. Some cook meals in their own kitchens, arrange craps games, provide day care, rent out bedrooms, or do taxes. It’s a kind of stripped-down, skeletal form of entrepreneurship that the poor refer to as hustling. Each day is a new challenge, and relationships are everything. Everybody hustles, or they starve.

Daniel Pink, the author of “Free Agent Nation,” has another term for exactly the same thing: free agency. In his nation, workers are highly educated but not employed full time by big companies. They are free-lancers and contractors. Pare away the fancier and more self-congratulatory term “free agent,” and you have hustling. And in the midst of it, technology provides the means for these folks to hustle.

Technology has always enabled mankind to do more in less time, and with less effort. Spears and arrows increased his range of fire and upped the odds of bagging meat. The plow helped enable food surpluses, making civilization possible. As technologies advance, they become more portable and empowering for the individual.

The computers of the 1960s took up entire rooms, while today your day planner, telephone, calculator, map, postal service, voice mail and entertainment fit into a thin, flat, plastic case little bigger than a pack of cigarettes. Enough computing power to run a small town can be tucked under one arm and effortlessly hauled from meeting to meeting, after which the hustler sets up shop in any handy coffeehouse to get the work done.

All of this has given today’s business hustlers the ability to match their peripatetic lifestyles to the needs of companies. When your “office” fits neatly into a briefcase with room left over for a ham sandwich and chips, the lure of becoming a hustler is immense if your constitution can take the ups and downs of marketing yourself and dunning clients for overdue invoices.

Hustlers, though, need more than just portability; they need versatility, the ability to confidently switch from one offering to another. Technology provides the foundation for it. Today’s client may need specifications, while tomorrow another client might need engineering calculations, and a third might require drawings.

According to experts, the number of hustlers (which they persist in calling free agents) has increased enormously in the past few years, driven by several factors, including a free-falling economy, layoffs and downsizing, and the abilities of the hustlers themselves. Companies are increasingly coming to rely on them for short-term work.

Curiously, technology rarely gets its due as a key enabler of hustling. Work can now be distributed, meaning it can be cut into manageable pieces and done at far-flung points instead of concentrated in an office building. Each piece is typically being done by a hustler, relying on high tech to power his or her efforts. Without it, the whole structure collapses and work becomes once again like the factory shift-change scene from “Metropolis.”

All of this portable workplace power means being a high-tech hustler is almost entirely a lifestyle choice. Laptops, tablets, smartphones and other enablers are cheap enough that almost any professional can invest in them.

Being a hustler is often stressful and occasionally an adrenaline rush. It isn’t for everyone. But if you have the personality and all you lack is the capability, there has never been a better time to buy the necessary gadgetry and plunge into that world. When you do, exult in being a hustler. Hustlers work and produce, and are always alert for opportunities. If we meet somewhere, smile as you introduce yourself as a hustler. I’ll know what you mean.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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