The big tech companies of the late 20th and 21st centuries have been the titans of industry, the catalysts of what’s been called a Third Industrial Revolution. Their impact on our economies, our societies, and how we live and interact is profound. These companies are literally making history every day. So how are tech companies thinking about and approaching their history?
Many of the older titans of the tech sector — IBM, Microsoft, Apple, HP, Intel, Adobe and Apple — have rich histories that they’ve taken strides to institutionalize in programs such as museums and archives. And now the younger industry titans of the 21st century — Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter — are approaching corporate anniversary milestones. Compared to their older industry rivals or role models, these younger firms face unique challenges when it comes to preserving and using their history.
First, today’s businesses — and tech companies in particular — are moving at a faster pace than ever before. Facebook is a premier example of a tech company making history at warp speed. Because of its accelerated portfolio, Facebook records its company timeline in months rather than years. Key moments like the launch of “reactions” worldwide, the introduction of 360 photos, and the release of Facebook Marketplace and Workplace are recorded in quick succession. What would be considered complete game-changers by most companies’ standards are just a few of Facebook’s highlights from 2016.
Moreover, the lack of tangible product is creating a unique challenge for tech companies determined to preserve their legacy in the digital age. For these companies, “shipping product” is actually deploying code. Capturing history in this environment is more akin to investment management. Without the tangible products and packaging, contextual information and supporting documentation is key.
Finally, many of the younger tech companies still have founders or first-generation leaders at the helm. We’ve written before about how founders can create unique complexities when it comes to the legacy of their businesses.
The hands that are so well-equipped for moving history forward are not always as adept at preserving the past. With that in mind, we’ve adapted a few heritage management insights into a simple process for you to begin preserving the heritage of your tech company.
5 Steps to Preserve Your Digital History
Before you take action, take the time to analyze the critical functions of your company. What are the defining moments in your company’s history? What drove those decisions? Break down each defining moment of your company’s history, sparing no detail. When you have an outline, you can determine the materials you need to account for.
Future steps in this process will be overwhelming if you don’t have a strategy. Answering these questions will determine how your company will be remembered in the next 50 years. Once you are finished, you will have a searchable list to guide discovery.
The mechanics for preserving the history of tech companies are much different than companies that predates the internet, but the principle remains the same: Gather all significant historic information and store it in one location. For a successful discovery of your company’s history, you should take the following actions:
- Round up photos
The first place to turn for historical images of companies born in the Information Age is your own electronic files. Perform a sweeping internal search for all the materials that adequately capture the defining moments of your company’s history. Pictures should include everything from the founders to the first company move to events that happened yesterday.
At this stage, everything is important. Ask staff to send you every picture of significance. Then, involve other people who have been invested from the very beginning—family, friends, mentors and other supporters. Talk to the founder’s friend who wasn’t actually a part of the company but might as well have been. These are the people who will add unique perspectives and deep understanding of the company’s legacy.
Prioritize your search to focus on images that aren’t easily accessible. Images from media outlets are useful, but those from internal sources are more important. The selfie from the founder during a commencement speech at a university is going to be much harder to obtain than one from the media— but it’s worth every pixel.
Now that you have all your photographic assets, consolidate and label them. Make note of everyone pictured, where they were and what was happening. Names and descriptions can distinguish a photo of just another meeting from one capturing a crucial brainstorm session that saved the company.
- Pick Up Your Paper Trail
Try to recall all of the T’s you’ve crossed and the I’s you’ve dotted, and send out the bloodhounds. Track down all the documents from events of significance. Tech companies are vastly electronic but not completely paperless. It is important to gather hard copies of trademarks, copyrights and patents that built the foundation of your company.
When you begin your search, first think of the “unGoogleable” examples of your history. Be broad and creative. There is a story behind the receipt for the first company purchase, the first investor confirmation, and the handwritten thank-you note. The first recorded company logo may actually be a crude doodle on a stained bar napkin. Where is it now?
It’s safe to assume most of your files will be on a server or in the cloud. Be sure to preserve these, too. Look under your digital mattress for these critical documents and save them with the rest of your historical records. Archiving email and voicemail is another great way to preserve correspondence. Capture and save the ones that are the most important or attached to significant events.
- Search for Icons
Find the three-dimensional objects that are representative of your corporate culture. If you were to construct a replica of your first office, what tangible icons would you include? Think of the items that defined your space. Imagine your office as not just four walls and a roof but also the window into early company culture. Was there plastic folding intern desk that became the beer pong table at 4:30 on Friday, or an unofficial company mascot?
Dust off the hardware that might look like ancient relics compared to what you’re using today—those are physical proof that your company has always been an early adopter. Think of the first computer, the first 3D printer, the first company drone that took your first 360 video and landed your biggest client.
Be sure to gather all awards and certificates. Outside recognition validates your accomplishments and subsequently your timeline. There is also value in internal objects. Marketing swag and giveaways show a creative evolution of your logo.
- Follow Your Digital Footprint
Take a ride on the Wayback Machine and see all the digital content you’ve posted online. Save screenshots of your first website, Facebook page and Twitter feed. Information native to digital platforms can seem fleeting—social media in particular.
At this point, you may have exhausted some of your immediate resources. If that is the case, visit the Library of Congress, which archives company tweets and preserves historical hashtags. Navigate third-party resources and download or screenshot your social media for your own record.
More important than the 140 characters in a Tweet? The ideas behind them. If your founder took a particular stance on a hot-button issue, it is part of the company’s grand narrative and worth preserving.
- Capture Key Anecdotes
Complement your recent search with anecdotal memories of your company. Employees have lived your company’s history. Start by picking the brains of these people, some of whom have legacies of their own.
Sit down with the engineers who created your first beta product and relive the experience. Tease out the stressful all-nighters that aged them 10 years and the days that made it all worth it. Record the highest highs and lowest lows. This process can be as formal as an oral history or as informal as hitting the record button on your cellphone.
This step may be really easy for tech firms, where the founding story is still fresh and the founders are around to tell it. But if you wait until your company turns 100 before you write your story, you won’t capture the meat and grit of it.
Now that you have a substantial collection, you must implement an overarching structure for it. Not every company has the knowledge and human resources needed to build a system to preserve and use its historical assets. It may be beneficial to bring in an archivist with the skill and expertise to handle a project of this magnitude.
Archiving your collection can be done onsite or offsite. Would you rather keep your archives close by? It is not uncommon for a heritage management firm to place a team of archivists on location.
With the right system in place, your archives will be accessible at a moment’s notice. The database you create through this process is a valuable tool, not just another server. Your company’s history is better shared than hidden.
The amount of history your company is making, combined with the evolving nature of your digital assets, requires upkeep to ensure the time and energy you’ve invested endures. Think of maintaining your company’s newly built archive like you would a vehicle: It is more efficient to change the oil once a month than to buy a new car.
Digital archives don’t suffer the same wear and tear as tangible content. That’s not to say that your digital assets will always remain in mint condition. Your company will continue to make history and produce more content. A well-sustained archive will survive change.
Our archivists use time-tested processes to determine the best content and architecture for a sustainable archive. Our unique focus is to preserve content for the future while making it accessible for the present. Do the same on your end, and your legacy will endure for generations.