The Myth of the Genius Tech Inventor

It’s practically an insult in Silicon Valley to say that an executive is extremely capable of running a company. Inventors, not great managers, are often the celebrated ones 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 cool electric cars. Turning an idea into a viable, lasting business is boring in comparison.

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

But the fixation on an individual’s ingenuity above all other abilities is a selective memory of the history of technology. Triumph is often the result of imagination combined with obsessive business knowledge. Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are respected for their technical imagination, but also for their supremacy in business strategy, marketing or ability to unite people in a shared mission.

Great ideas are almost never enough on their own. Strong leaders also need pragmatism and other skills beyond the dream. And the way technology is infusing everything now means that the myth of the genius inventor of technology is on the way to progress.

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

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook is the boss – the manufacturing detail genius. Jony Ive was the heart of the design genius who helped Jobs make computers fun and shaped the modern smartphone. I quit working at Apple full-time in 2019 and, according to Tripp, complained that technocrats and “accountants” were sucking the soul out of Apple.

That’s a refrain that pops up periodically among technologists and investors who say Apple has lost touch with product invention and creativity. There have been similar grievances about Microsoft under its former chief executive Steve Ballmer, and we hear now about Google led by Sundar Pichai and Uber after its founder, Travis Kalanick, was pressured to resign in 2017. corporate bureaucrats are winning both technical skills and heart.

Some of these are natural concerns about companies as they grow. Some of the sentiment likely reflects nostalgia for a time when invention of technology was everything. Except it’s a selective reading of the history of technology.

Silicon Valley’s celebrated inventors are often heart and head. Jobs was a capable technologist, but mostly a brilliant pitcher and brand genius. Amazon is a reflection of Bezos’ inventive ideas and financial magic. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were more ultra-competitive business strategists than software coding geniuses. Elon Musk is a great inventor, but his SpaceX is a great company, in part because he works with operations experts, including Gwynne Shotwell.

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

“The lone genius is a powerful myth because it has a kernel of truth,” she said, but it also ignores other skills and the collaboration needed to bring any idea to life. “Even Thomas Edison had many, many 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 once-in-a-lifetime achievement, but it took obsessive nerds like Cook to ensure that Apple could manufacture hundreds of millions of perfect copies year after year and not crash.

It is also becoming clearer that the skills needed for technology-enabled transformations are changing.

Technology is no longer confined to Ive’s brilliant inventions in a cardboard box. It has become an enabler for reimagining systems like healthcare, manufacturing, and transportation.

Of course, this requires a creative thinker who can create artificial intelligence codes, virtual worlds or satellites that transmit internet services 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 skills of persuasion to summon the collective will to seek a better future. The power to invent is necessary, but not sufficient.

  • A dramatic day for Lyft and Uber: My colleague Kellen Browning wrote that Lyft let investors down with the release of its passenger numbers and warnings that the company was having trouble attracting enough in-demand drivers. Uber said it wasn’t having any of these problems, but both companies’ share prices dropped today. We will continue to follow what happens.

  • A cryptocurrency executive was not who he claimed to be. My colleague Ron Lieber uncovered the truth about an executive at ZenLedger, a software company, who misrepresented his academic and professional background and investment history.

  • They are true believers in black market Birkin bags: The Cut writes about a group of people on Reddit who may buy luxury goods but are dedicated to buying counterfeit versions. The group, RepLadies, is “marked by a kind of derision of authentic products and the belief that buying replicas is a way of subverting the system and tying it to man.” (Subscription may be required.)

Actresses Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin compare their professional award scores, and it’s delightful how much fun they’re having with each other.

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