Host, comedian, producer, author, actor… and technologist? It’s true: Trevor Noah can do it all.
At Pluralsight LIVE 2019, the third annual tech skills conference held in Salt Lake City, Utah, The Daily Show host Trevor Noah sat down with Pluralsight CEO Aaron Skonnard for an hour of reflection—and a few predictions—on the impact of technology on life, politics, news and education.
Born a tech geek
Noah landed The Daily Show in 2015, after blazing a trail through the South Africa comedy scene and carving out his space on the international stage. But long before all that, he was pulling apart and rebuilding computers, burning and selling CDs, and otherwise harnessing technology as it emerged to become a business person in a country that told him he had no business doing so.
Noah said the drive to monetize his tech skills kicked in a young age, thanks largely to his mother Patricia’s insistence on continuous learning. He described her as someone who’s always striving to break boundaries—learning to speak 9 languages (“I speak 7 languages, so I’m the underachiever,” Noah joked.), bringing home a Pentium 386 for Noah to play around on before home computers became the norm, and even developing typing skills before black people were allowed to hold office jobs in South Africa.
When Noah questioned his mom’s choice to pursue a skill set she couldn’t even be employed to use, she explained, “I would rather have the skill if the time comes than to not have the skill when the opportunity presents itself.”
“I didn’t struggle. I only knew my life. As a child, you absorb the reality defined to you by your parents. My mother never made me feel like things weren’t going to plan.” – Trevoh Noah, on growing up in post-apartheid South Africa
Patricia now runs a real estate business, reinvigorating her city by helping people live close to where they work. “Tech empowered her to operate in a space where she could do what she wanted to do,” Noah said.
Noah’s journey toward tech skills happened a little different from his mother’s. What started simply as burning CDs for minibus drivers and neighbors became a full-blown DJ operation that hinged on continuous upskilling and adapting to technology change to serve the needs of his community.
“That’s the thing in business and in tech. You realize needs and as you expand your consumer base you have to expand as well. Tech is just finding a simple idea or a simple need that people have and then catering to it,” he said. “Tech gives you the ability to find your consumer and gives your consumer the ability to find you. What was more important to my customers than the music,” he said, “was having access to choice.”
His best-sellers as a young entrepreneur? “Love compilations,” he said with a laugh. “Valentine’s Day was huge for us.”
Paying opportunity forward
While Trevor said learning half a dozen languages has allowed him to appreciate the value of learning to communicate “through the lens of someone else,” there was one language puzzle he couldn’t solve as a young adult.
“Learning a language is humbling, but I hit a brick wall [with programming],” he said. “Programming is so money-dependent. That’s why I try to afford that opportunity to other kids now,” he said, referencing The Trevor Noah Foundation’s work to give underprivileged youth the required tools, skills and pathways to opportunity.
“To be ‘illiterate’ in the world of computers today is a death sentence,” he added. “Tech was an industry; now tech is the umbrella that all industries are under. Every company is a tech company. You can’t not be in tech,” he said.
As the Trevor Noah Foundation works to give the next generation of technologists equal footing in a changing job market and rapidly evolving tech landscape, Noah expressed gratitude for the opportunities afforded to him, while noting that the work of providing that opportunity for others isn’t yet finished.
“Whenever I feel bored, it’s usually a sign I need to learn something new...and to learn something new, you have to be willing to be an idiot at the beginning.”
“I have no delusions of grandeur about ‘self-made’ success,” he said. “I don’t have many answers. I’m just trying. What I’m trying to do with the Trevor Noah Foundation is just create an environment where kids have that leg up to be at a place where other kids are in the world. Be in a place where computers aren’t a crazy idea. Just being in a place where it’s normal.”
For Noah, one solution may be right at our fingertips. As an avid gamer, Noah believes games give kids a chance to flex problem-solving and creative muscles in ways that traditional educational tools cannot.
“The great thing about video games is that they’ll hold your hand at the experience level you’re at, and the game evolves as you evolve,” he said. “The learning curve of video games is fantastic, and they are entirely focused on solving a problem.”
He credited video games with the ability to break down barriers of entry to human experiences, like flying a plane (Thanks, Microsoft Flight Simulator!) or playing golf on every course in the world—and forecasted that VR technology will drastically improve people’s ability to learn and experience the world in the near future.
“I think gaming has only scratched the surface of informing and teaching us as human beings,” he said. “I think we can, as human beings, know so much more. The possibilities are infinite if we can just harness those tools.”
Noah’s take on the future of tech
With a front-row seat to the world’s news, Noah uses his platform to remind leaders of the impact their use of technology has, and will continue to have, on the way we live.
“What tech leaders need to reckon with is a responsible acknowledgement of the power of technology,” he said. “Tech leaders have to be careful and responsible with what they create. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t create. But what people should try to do is think of all the ramifications of what they create.”
He predicted that, much like the decades-old attitudes surrounding tobacco seem incomprehensible to us now, we’ll soon reach a time when we’ll also look back on social media and other practices we’ve built around technology the same way. When considering the intersection of tech with politics, social issues and the like, Noah’s overarching advice was simple: We need to communicate.
“We can’t afford to not be having these conversations,” he said.
Noah’s life experiences and approach to success have given him a powerful voice that even the most accomplished technology leaders at Pluralsight LIVE benefitted from hearing. Read more about his appearance here.