November 30, 2023


Sapiens Digital

The Myth of the Genius Tech Inventor


It’s practically an insult in Silicon Valley to say that an executive is extremely capable at running a company. Inventors, not great managers, are often the ones celebrated in technology.

We imagine mad scientists bringing to life their visions of the first personal computers, software that organizes all the websites in the world and cool electric cars. Turning an idea into a viable and lasting business is dull by comparison.

That companies will give more power to business operatives over inventors is a constant fear among technologists. The concern is understandable. Innovation is essential and tough to sustain now that technology is a mammoth industry.

But the fixation on an individual’s ingenuity above all other abilities is a selective memory of tech history. Triumph is often the result of imagination combined with obsessive business savvy. Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are respected for their technical imagination but also their supremacy in business strategy, marketing or 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 beyond dreaming. And the way that technology is infusing everything now means that the myth of the genius tech inventor is standing in the way of progress.

I’ve been thinking of this because I started reading my colleague Tripp Mickle’s new book, which explores the tensions between Apple’s head and its heart in the decade since Jobs died.

Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, is the head — the whiz at manufacturing details. Jony Ive was the design-genius heart who helped Jobs make computers fun and shaped the modern smartphone. Ive stopped working at Apple full time in 2019 and, in Tripp’s telling, complained that technocrats and “accountants” were sucking Apple of its soul.

This is a refrain that pops up periodically among technologists and investors who say that Apple has lost its touch at product invention and creativity. There were similar gripes about Microsoft under its former chief executive, Steve Ballmer, and we hear that at times now about Google led by Sundar Pichai and Uber after its founder, Travis Kalanick, was pressured to resign in 2017. The fear is that corporate bureaucrats are winning over technical skills and heart.

Some of those are natural concerns about companies as they grow large. Some of the sentiment probably reflects nostalgia for a time when tech inventing was everything. Except that is a selective reading of tech history.

Celebrated Silicon Valley inventors are often both heart and head. Jobs was a capable technologist but mostly a brilliant pitchman and brand genius. Amazon is a reflection of Bezos’ inventive ideas and his financial wizardry. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were ultracompetitive business strategists more than they were software-coding masterminds. Elon Musk is a great inventor, but his SpaceX is a great company partly because he works with operations experts including Gwynne Shotwell.

A belief that ingenuity was the most important ability of these tech icons “obscured the core skill set that made these people extraordinary,” said Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington professor who researches the history of technology companies.

“The lone genius is a powerful myth because it has a grain of truth,” she said, but it also ignores other skills and the collaboration necessary to bring any idea to life. “Even Thomas Edison had many, many people in his laboratory,” O’Mara said.

Tripp’s book makes it clear that Apple as we know it today would not exist without Cook and other technocrats. Developing the iPhone was a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment, but it took obsessive nerds like Cook to ensure that Apple could manufacture hundreds of millions of perfect copies year after year and not go broke.

It’s also becoming clearer that the skills necessary for technology-enabled transformations are changing.

Technology is no longer confined to shiny Ive inventions in a cardboard box. It’s become an enabler to reimagine systems like health care, manufacturing and transportation.

Sure, that requires a creative thinker who can come up with artificial intelligence code, virtual worlds or satellites that beam internet service to Earth. But at the risk of sounding woo-woo, it also requires a curiosity about the complexity of people and the world, an ability to navigate institutional and human inertia, and the persuasion skills to summon the collective will to pursue a brighter future. The power to invent is necessary, but it is not enough.

  • A dramatic day for Lyft and Uber: My colleague Kellen Browning wrote that Lyft disappointed investors with disclosures of its ridership numbers and warnings that the company was having trouble attracting enough on-demand drivers. Uber said that it was having none of those problems, but stock prices of both companies fell today. We’ll continue to follow what happens.

  • A crypto executive wasn’t who he said he was. My colleague Ron Lieber unraveled the truth about an executive at ZenLedger, a software company, who misrepresented his academic and professional background and his track record of investments.

  • They are true believers in black-market Birkin bags: The Cut 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 kind of derision for authentic goods and the belief that buying replicas is a way of subverting the system and sticking it to the man.” (A subscription may be required.)

The actresses Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin compare their counts of professional awards, and it is delightful how much fun they’re having with each other.

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