It’s a funny thing in “geek” land that often the leaders of these companies become almost Hollywood like as they attain fortune and fame. They rarely, if ever look like Richard Gere. They are a cross of Hollywood fame with Albert Einstein like credentials (and looks). The technology press and the greater press hang on every word looking for insight into what the future of mankind holds and their companies abilities to act on those prophesies inspires our confidence in them. The success of any great technology company lays in a large part to the stature of its leaders. To have someone at the top who sees the future clearly and can define his or hers companies role in that future. The great ones tend to have a very large sense of how their company will not only participate in the future but will define that future. There have been many ans still are many in the industry. I would argue that without someone at the helm setting the tempo for the future companies are bound to fail, it may take time but they will, in time, become irrelevant regardless of their size and stature.
I remember a defining moment in my career came at Microsoft’s Global Sales Summit in Orlando, Florida in 1998. After many days of sales of sales meetings, late nights, and very hot weather it was nearing the last night. Before we partied the night away there was one last meeting to attend, but it was the most important: The Bill Gates keynote. It was always the one, no matter how tired or how hung over you were you rallied and got there early. The doors were always shut as the crew did their final prep and made the stage ready. When the doors opened people flooded into the room, trying to get the best seat possible. I was never one to crown the front. They had huge monitors so I never felt a trying need or desire to be right up front. Plus I prefer a little space, so I was in the back.
The Gates entrance was always rather spectacular, and Orlando was no exception. Smoke and cool lighting as the audiences anticipation built and then as if in a flash a silhouette of a man of small stature appeared in some mad up god like fashion. As always his hands were close to his chest and interlocked together, in what would resemble prayer but was certainly not prayer. As he stepped out of the staged special effects his hands would come undone as he would reach with his finger to his face to softly adjust his seemingly over sized glasses and gently push them up the bridge of his nose. As he came out to join his legions of followers, he paused to admire the audience and then spoke, “I don’t have any Powerpoint slides today, I am just going to talk”. A stool had been placed on stage and he just sat down and discussed the state of Microsoft, what the competition was doing, what Microsoft would do to compete and beat the competition, and what he future would hold. As a Microsoft employee at the time I could say everyone in the audience was comforted and felt enthusiastic about the company moving forward.
Tech companies are defined by moments like I just described, Probably even more so by the demagoguery of their leaders The list of great tech visionaries and their companies is long. Bill Gates and Microsoft. Steve Jobs and Apple. Larry Paige and Sergey Brin at Google. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. In many ways it resembles and acts within these companies as a cult of personality. The question for many of these companies and a much bigger challenge is what happens when the founder dies or leaves the company. Is there someone who has the leadership ability combined with the technical discipline to provide a road map for the future? Both Microsoft and Apple struggle with this now since the departure of Bill Gates and the death of Steve Jobs.
There was a view at one point that as these companies mature and will have start operating like a real corporate company. To act more like a GE or Proctor & Gamble. To have mature business leaders run different lines of business. This was probably more emphasized by the failure of the dotcom era to overturn the classic rules of business, For those who were around all the talk in those days was about the breaking down of the old rules of business. Fundamentally one rule will never change which is your financial statements will tell the public if you are successful or not. However one thing that makes the world of technology unique is the pace of change. A cash cow like blueberry mix or refrigerators, which have been around for over sixty years, does not radically change that often if ever. When was the last time you heard a presentation about the future of the refrigerator? Cake mix? Business leaders in those industries need to be creative as they try to squeeze more profits out of s stagnant product. Microsoft Windows, the ultimate cash cow is being challenged as form factors have changed and the browser wars have heated up. The foundation of the OS is fundamentally changing and will change again. Nothing is forever.
Business fundamentals are important but at the end of the day every tech company needs their top tech people to be sitting up late at night in a hotel discussing the future of technology. To be able to evaluate new technologies as they come to light and figure out where will their company utilize new technology and where it fits in the roadmap of their future. Discussing where the company is positioned today. Where is the competition positioned. What is the market doing? What trends are fads and what are trends that can be built upon for a bigger future. However the most important thing a tech visionary does is anticipate and manage change.
Change kills many companies. MySpace was first but Facebook was better. There were many search companies, but now it seems we only know Google. Microsoft had the Reader SDK, anyone heard of a Kindle? Everyone knew the Cloud was coming, but only Amazon bet early and often. There was Mapquest and MapPoint, now it seems we all use Google Maps. As I look forward does it seem inevitable that the automobile will be self driving? Whose betting in the industry?
Following up on the last point there is also timing. We are all familiar withe classic hockey stick curve. At the inflection point things take off and become self-propelling. It’s important to have leadership that sees and predicts those inflection points and steers the company to greater success. The flip side of course is if you do not have those types of leaders you miss those inflection points, such as the transition to mobile computing. Microsoft was guilty here of missing that transition. Before the Apple iPhone launched that industry seemed to be following a normal trajectory. Other companies were in first but over time Microsoft would improve and eventually eat their lunch. Lunch never came as the industry changed rapidly and simple things like product release cycles changed as well – going from 3 years to under 12 months. The Microsoft bureaucracy was not set up to meet this new paradigm and eventually a major re-organization was needed. Other examples would be the merging of file and print with application servers, one Microsoft got right and another company, Novell completely missed the boat of, where are they now?
Getting in front of these changes is the key ability a true visionary needs to provide his/her followers. Gates did it to Novell and countless others. Jobs in turn did it to Ballmer. Now Brin and Paige have done it to Yahoo and many other companies. It will be exciting what the next generation of visionaries will bring, how the will view the future as it unfolds before us. The task of staying on top of these rapid changes is daunting and I will say that every visionary I have seen in the industry usually has a brain trust of really smart people around him. Gates had Paul Maritz, Bob Muglia, Sanjay Pasatharathay, Eric Rudder, and countless others..because when you are in the “famous” phase you can attract a lot of top-level talent. It is important to have a sounding board to bounce ideas off of and also absorb new ideas. In the end it is the idea generation that visionaries bring to the table that make the industry and the future so exciting to be a part of. Finding the right individual with the right company is the trick. I was lucky to find one, in Bill Gates, and I am still hopeful to work for the next one, wherever he or she may be..
Good Night and Good Luck
Hans Henrik Hoffmann, August 4, 2013