It is practically an insult in Silicon Valley to say that an executive is extremely capable of running a business. Inventors, not great managers, are often the ones celebrated in technology.
We imagine mad scientists bringing their visions of the first personal computers to life, software that organizes all the websites in the world, and fantastic electric cars to life. Turning an idea into a viable and lasting activity is boring by comparison.
It is a constant fear among technologists that companies give more power to economic operators than to inventors. The concern is understandable. Innovation is essential and difficult to sustain now that technology is a giant industry.
But the fixation on an individual’s ingenuity above all other abilities is a selective reminder of the history of technology. Triumph is often the result of imagination combined with obsessive business expertise. Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are respected for their technical imaginations but also for their supremacy in business strategy, marketing or the ability to unite people behind a shared mission.
Great ideas are almost never enough on their own. Strong leaders also need pragmatism and other skills besides the dream. And the way technology is infusing everything now it means that the myth of the genius inventor of technology is hindering progress.
I thought about it because I started reading my colleague Tripp Mickle’s new book, which explore tensions between Apple’s head and heart in the decade following Jobs’ death.
Apple CEO Tim Cook is the boss, the wizard of manufacturing details. Jony Ive was the heart of the design genius who helped Jobs make computers fun and shaped the modern smartphone. I have quit working full-time at Apple in 2019 and, according to Tripp’s account, complained that technocrats and “accountants” were sucking Apple out of his soul.
This is a refrain That to appear periodically among technologists and investors who claim that Apple has lost touch with the invention and creativity of products. There were similar complaints on Microsoft under its former CEO, Steve Ballmer, and now we hear about it from time to time Google driven by Sundar Pichai and Uber nach its founder, Travis Kalanick, what forced to resign in 2017. The fear is that corporate bureaucrats are gaining technical skills and heart.
Some of these are natural concerns for businesses as they grow. Some of the feelings likely reflect nostalgia for an era where the invention of technology was everything. Except it’s a selective reading of the history of technology.
Famous Silicon Valley inventors are often both the heart and the head. Jobs was a capable technologist, but above all a brilliant pitcher and a genius of the brand. Amazon is a reflection of Bezos’ creative ideas and his financial magic. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were ultra-competitive business strategists rather than software programming minds. Elon Musk is a great inventor, but his SpaceX is a great company in part because he works with him operational experts including Gwynne Shotwell.
The belief that ingenuity was the most important skill of these tech icons “overshadowed the basic skill set that made these people extraordinary,” he said. Margaret O’Maraa University of Washington professor researching the history of tech companies.
“The lone genius is a powerful myth because he has a grain of truth,” he said, but he also ignores other skills and the collaboration needed to bring any idea to life. “Thomas Edison also had many, many people in his lab,” O’Mara said.
Tripp’s book makes it clear that Apple as we know it today wouldn’t exist without Cook and other technocrats. The development of the iPhone was a once-in-a-lifetime achievement, but it took obsessive nerds like Cook to make sure Apple could produce hundreds of millions of perfect copies year after year and not go broke.
It is also becoming clearer that the skills required for technology-enabled transformations are changing.
Technology is no longer limited to glittering inventions Ive in a cardboard box. It has become an enabling factor for reimagining systems such as healthcare, manufacturing and transportation.
Of course, this requires a creative thinker who can invent artificial intelligence code, virtual worlds, or satellites that broadcast Internet services to Earth. But at the risk of playing woo-woo, it also requires a curiosity about the complexity of people and the world, an ability to navigate institutional and human inertia, and persuasion skills to evoke the collective will to pursue a brighter future. Inventory power is needed, but it’s not enough.
Before you go…
A dramatic day for Lyft and Uber: My colleague Kellen Browning he wrote that Lyft disappointed investors with disclosure of its passenger numbers and warnings that the company was having difficulty attracting enough drivers on demand. Uber said it wasn’t experiencing any of these issues, but both companies’ stock prices fell today. We will continue to follow what happens.
A cryptocurrency executive was not what he claimed to be. My colleague Ron Lieber revealed the truth about an executive at ZenLedger, a software company, who misrepresented his academic and professional background and his investment track record.
They are true believers in black market Birkin bags: Cutting writes about a group of people on Reddit who can afford luxury goods but are dedicated to buying counterfeit versions. The group, RepLadies, is “marked by a sort of derision for authentic goods and a belief that buying replicas is a way to subvert the system and attack it on man.” (Subscription may be required.)
A hug to this
Actresses Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin compare their professional award countsand it’s delightful how much they have fun with each other.
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