David Thompson, data scientist/entrepreneur, and Brian Smiga, founder TEDxAsburyPark, talk about random connections and how they can actually enrich your life.

Brian Smiga: I’m here with David Thompson. This is Brian Smiga, the Founder and Co-host of TEDxAsburyPark. We’ll be putting on our eighth TEDxAsburyPark for a full house at the Two River Theater in Red Bank in the Spring of 2021. And David is here with me now. We’re talking about the joy of random connections. Hi David. 

David Thompson: Hello Brian. Thanks for having me.

Brian Smiga: Great to have you here. I know you from your work out in the world a little bit. That is in data science, in which you have a Doctorate, and I find it fascinating. I want to talk about your work in what we’re basically calling random connections, and the ability for people, and societies, and organizations to encounter, enjoy random connections and benefit from them. How did you come to this idea, if I have it right?

David Thompson: It was entirely random, as you might expect. So I don’t have a PhD in data science, I have a PhD in theoretical chemistry. That’s a pedantic distinction to make, but it’s important for this story. Apologies and bear with me. I worked for a very long time doing research in pharmaceutical companies using the tools of theoretical chemistry to help make drugs. And, as I got exposed to the business side of how we make drugs, I transitioned into the business side of how we make drugs. And I found myself, I think this was 2011-2012, at a conference on social media because I decided that the part of the business I wanted to play in to begin with was really how companies were using social media tools to help engage employees, help engage consumers, etcetera. 

I’m at this conference, I’m about to present on social media and I strike up this random conversation with this very delightful person who was standing behind me, who offered me help with the coffee machine. It was one of those fancy European jobbies with all the bells and whistles. And I wasn’t really sure how to work the coffee, and she showed me kindly and then took a few steps away as if to say, “My job here is done. We can go on with our day now. You have your coffee, I helped, and all’s good.”

But I insisted on striking up a conversation which is very un-British of me because I was so thankful that this person had given me a straight line to some caffeine. Anyway, we were chatting for five, six minutes and all of a sudden the conversation veers off into modeling and statistical physics, and I really wasn’t expecting this at all, right? I’m at a business conference, we’re talking social media. Anyway, it turned out that this woman was doing some consulting work for a company called Kaggle.

Kaggle was, at the time, the largest community of data scientists on the planet. They were acquired by Google a couple of years ago. Their business continues to thrive. And we ended up running a Kaggle competition through this random connection with this person I’d met at some random conference that I’d happened to be at. Now, that’s a cool story in and of itself. But it was through that participation in this program that I got to share a stage with a colleague of mine who is coming out of the salesforce on the pharmaceutical side of things. He was a sales rep, he would visit physicians and he wrote code on the side, right? A really unique blend of skills that you don’t usually expect in a sales rep. And he’d essentially written a series of algorithms that he turned into an app that would optimize his time between physicians’ offices.

And so because of these two innovations, we were sharing a stage and we got to become friends and got to talking. And this chap became just such a wonderful friend that we just would end up bouncing ideas off each other. And then in the summer of 2012, my parents had visited, right? So I’m originally English, my parents came to America for the summers because the weather is way more predictable. And in 2012 during the Olympics, they were here for three weeks, and then they went home and I went back to the office, and I was just struck by how all of my usual lunch cliques had been broken because I’d been away for three weeks, and everyone had plans and no one was around for lunch.

So I go down to my cafeteria and I am just viscerally struck by the fact that there are little islands of people all having lunch together. But the social contract is not that I can’t go up to a table and be like, “Hey, you don’t know me. This is going to be weird for about 25 seconds, but I’m pretty sure that we can manage to string together a conversation where you feel good, I feel good, and we get something meaningful out of it.” Because of course the social contract is if you are approached by someone you don’t know, especially in a lunch setting or a dentist setting, you’re looking for the button under the desk to bring security over.

And this really struck me. And I was driving home and it occurred to me that there must be a way that we could use technology to create a space that people could opt into, that would get over this. And I got out of my car and I sent Chris a message and I was like, “Hey Chris.” I described the problem and within I think 36 hours he’d responded to me and had hacked together what became Lunch Roulette. And Lunch Roulette is this tool that we’ve put into the world. It’s what, six, seven years old now, that does exactly what I described. It creates a space using technology for people to opt into the process of randomly meeting other people who work in the same organization as them.

Brian Smiga: That’s great. And so what did you learn as people did Lunch Roulette and started having lunches with random connections?

David Thompson: So we learnt one thing, when people didn’t understand it, they often framed it in the context of dating. And we were always very quick to say this has got absolutely nothing to do with romance or dating or meeting people of the opposite sex, right? It’s a very dangerous road to go down and we avoided that completely. The second thing we learned was it worked really well when you didn’t have an agenda, when you just turned up…I have a neighbor and my neighbor once got quite drunk at a neighborhood gathering and he insisted on telling me his one rule for life. And his one rule for life is “you turn up and you pay attention”. And I was gobsmacked by this by the way, because I absolutely think this is so true.

And if you just did that with Lunch Roulette, if you turned up and you paid attention, you listened to what the person was telling you, you thought about your life in the context of what you were hearing and you offered to share back in an open and empathetic way, tons of stuff could happen, right? We heard of new business deals being realized. We heard of new friends being made. We heard of some times nothing happened, it was just a perfectly pleasant conversation with someone that you didn’t previously know, and that you may not ever see again. But it was better than having lunch at your desk, right?

Brian Smiga: If I can just carry on here with an example from my own world. We’re in the venture business and all the venture events have a bunch of service providers and all the junior people go. And there was nothing for the partners, the people that actually ran the firms. And so we created a “partner only” breakfast in four cities that continues to this day, quarterly, although we’re on sabbatical due to COVID right now. And there’s a very big emphasis that there’s no agenda, there’s no pitch, there’s no agenda. It’s just getting 40 decision makers in the room to spend quality time together and all these random connections happen. So I’ve experienced this in real life. I can concur.

David Thompson: Yeah. We have thousands and thousands of people that have used this over the years in tons of different organizations and in tons of different settings. It’s really interesting and this is the thing that I hope to talk about with the TEDx participants is, firstly, the barriers we put in place to prevent this happening. Now obviously it’s somewhat trite to talk about this now, given that we’re in the midst of a global pandemic and we are being told to socially isolate. But even prior to that, we usually did a really good job of not engaging people even when we could. There was no reason I couldn’t rock up to people and introduce myself and say, “Hey, would it be cool if I sat down with you for 30 seconds?”

It’s just I thought I would bore them. I thought they’d be freaked out. I thought they’d get scared or spurn me. And it turns out when you look into the literature, that’s exactly the reason why we don’t do this. Even though we know if we do do it, we feel better about ourselves. And that boost in our sense of personal well-being actually persists for a surprisingly long time. So there’s tons of reasons to actually do this. Not to mention the fact that just by bringing together all these desperate pieces of the puzzle, it actually serves, I think, to enrich the tapestry of your life.

What I didn’t mention about the woman I met at this conference who introduced me to Kaggle, was the fact that I’d actually bought a book of hers about 15 years prior. She’d written a book on video games and I like video games and reading about video games. And so I bought this woman’s book. So as soon as she told me her name I’m like, “I know exactly who you are. And isn’t it surprising that I know you in multiple contexts now and we’re going to be able to do something as cool as bringing crowdsourcing to the pharmaceutical industry.”

Brian Smiga: I’ve got to bring this home. But I think there’s a couple of really exciting things to close with. One is that the TED conference itself, wherever it happens, both global TED, TEDWomen, TED Health, and the 3000 TEDx’s that happen around the world, including TEDxAsburyPark, TED brings an ingredient of this. There’s a community of trust. We like to say TEDxAsburyPark is dedicated to the open minds of Monmouth County, where we live. And David Thompson and we are going to engineer ways to get people to open up to each other at our all-day idea conference at TEDxAsburyPark.

And we have a beautiful venue to do that at the Two River Theater. We haven’t quite worked it out yet, whether we’re going to use badges or signals so that people can let others know they’re open to random conversations and meeting random people. But we’re going to foster an environment where people can meet others. And there’s a preview of this, which David is going to engage in on the 14th of May, 2020. When in an online salon, along with chef David Burke and comedian Marion Grodin, David is going to speak to us about the joy of random connections. So David, we look forward to seeing you on both of those occasions.

David Thompson: Yeah. Thank you so much Brian. I’m super excited to participate in, as you described it, an environment that is open to randomness and the joys that come from it.

Brian Smiga: Let’s see what we can do. Great. Thank you.

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