The Myth of the Genius Tech Inventor

To say that an executive is extremely capable of running a company in Silicon Valley is practically an insult. Inventors, not great managers, are often celebrated in technology.

We imagine that insane scientists would bring to life their vision of the first personal computer, all the websites in the world, and the software that organized the coolest electric cars. Turning an idea into a viable and sustainable business is relatively dull.

There is a constant fear among technologists that companies will give more power to business operators than inventors. Anxiety is understandable. Innovation is necessary and difficult to sustain now when technology is a huge industry.

But more than all other abilities, fixation on one’s ingenuity is a selective memory of technical history. Victory is often the result of an imagination linked to compulsive business acumen. Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are also honored for their technical imagination, but also for their superiority in their ability to unite people behind their business strategy, marketing or shared mission.

Great ideas are almost never enough on their own. Even strong leaders need skills other than practicality and dreaming. And the way technology is now blending everything means that the legend of the talented tech inventor is on the way to progress.

I’ve been thinking about this since I started reading my colleague Tripp Mickel’s new book, which explores the tension between Apple’s head and his heart in the decade after Jobs’ death.

Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, is the head – head of product details. Johnny Eve was the design-genius heart who helped Jobs make the computer fun and shape the modern smartphone. I quit working full-time at Apple in 2019 and, according to Tripp, technocrats and “accountants” were sucking Apple’s soul.

This is a gap that has appeared from time to time among technologists and investors who say that Apple has lost its touch in product discovery and creativity. Microsoft had a similar grip on its former chief executive Steve Ballmer about Microsoft and we hear that its founder Travis Kalanick was forced to resign in 2017 about Sundar Pichai and Uber-led Google. The danger is that corporate executives are gaining technical skills and hearts.

Some of them have natural concerns about companies as they get bigger. Some emotion probably reflects nostalgia for a time when tech was exploring everything. Apart from that there is a selective reading of tech history.

The inventors of the famous Silicon Valley often have both a heart and a head. Jobs was a competent technologist but mostly brilliant pitchman and brand genius. Amazon is a reflection of Bezos’ inventive ideas and their financial magic. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were more highly competitive business strategists than the software-coding mastermind. Elon Musk is a great inventor, but his SpaceX is a great company in part because he works with operations specialists, including Gwynne Shotwell.

Margaret O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington who has researched the history of technology companies, said the notion that the ingenuity of these tech icons is the most important capability “obscured the core skill set that made these people extraordinary.”

She said, “Talent alone is a powerful myth because it contains a grain of truth,” but it also ignores the other skills and the collaboration needed to bring any idea to life. “Thomas Edison also had a lot of people in his lab,” 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 lifelong achievement, but Apple needed compulsive experts like Cook to make sure it could produce millions of complete copies each year and not break.

It is also becoming clear that the skills needed for technology-enabled change are changing.

Technology is no longer limited to Ive Search, which shines in a cardboard box. It has been able to redesign systems such as health care, manufacturing and transportation.

Sure, it needs a creative thinker who can come up with an artificial intelligence code, a virtual world or a satellite that serves the internet on earth. But at the risk of hearing Woo-Woo, he also needs curiosity about people and the complexity of the world, the ability to navigate institutional and human inertia, and persuasion skills to summon the collective will to move forward to a brighter future. The power to search is required, but not enough.

  • Dramatic day for Lyft and Uber: My colleague Callan Browning wrote that the lift disappointed investors with the disclosure of its ridership number and warned that the company was having difficulty attracting enough on-demand drivers. Uber said it has no problem with that, but share prices of both companies have fallen today. We will continue to follow what happens.

  • A crypto executive was not what he said he was. My colleague Ron Liber revealed the truth about ZenLedger, a software company executive who misrepresented his academic and professional background and his track record of investing.

  • They are true believers in the black-market Birkin bag: The Cut writes about a group of people on Reddit who can afford luxury items but are dedicated to buying counterfeit versions. The group, RepLadies, “is marked by a kind of ridicule for authentic goods and the belief that buying replicas is a way to break the system and cling to man.” (Subscription may be required.)

Actresses Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin compare the number of their professional awards, and it’s fun to see how much fun they’re having with each other.

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