Non-Geeks Managing Tech Companies

Whether or not non-geeks can manage tech companies is a great subject for debate. I’d argue that Lou Gerstner, a non-geek, did a pretty good job managing IBM.

Fake Steve Jobs comments on this as it relates to Terry Semel’s departure from Yahoo.

Another issue is that it’s tough to run a tech shop when you’re not a techie yourself, or at least, as in my case, you’ve been around techies long enough to know when they’re bullshitting you. From what I’m told the engineers at Yahoo had a running contest to see who could tell Semel the most outrageous lie and get away with it.

Personally, I think it is possible for a non-geek to run a tech shop, but he needs a really strong technical adviser that he can lean on. If not, you’d run risk that your engineers would run all over you.

Are the Best and the Brightest Heard?

David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” describes how John F. Kennedy and his advisers made the decisions that led the US to Vietnam. Early in the the book, Kennedy is talking to his Secretary of Labor, Arthur Goldberg, after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion where irregular troops attempted to topple Castro’s Cuba. Goldberg complained to Kennedy that Kennedy was limiting himself to a small group of advisers and it was leading to some poor decisions.

Kennedy said that he meant no offense but although Goldberg was a good man, a friend, he was in labor, not in foreign policy.

“You’re wrong,” Goldberg replied, “you’re making the mistake of compartmentalizing your cabinet…I was in OSS during the war [WWII] and I ran guerrilla operations and I know something about guerrillas. That they are terrific at certain things. Sabotage and intelligence, nothing like them at that. But they’re no good at all in confronting regular units. Whenever we used them like that, we’d always lose all our people…But you didn’t think of that – and you put me in the category of just a Secretary of Labor.

This compartmentalization must happen all the time in business too.