My son is halfway through his freshman year at college and is trying to decide on a major. He asked me over Christmas break for some advice. To me, it’s an easy choice. “Be a nerd,” I told him. “Be a nerd.”
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Satya Nadella was named CEO of Microsoft last week. Nadella has an undergraduate degree in engineering and master’s degrees in both computer sciences and business. Before joining Microsoft he worked as a member of the technology staff at Sun Microsystems. At Microsoft he was previously the President of their server and tools division, a senior VP of research and development at the online service division and an executive VP of their cloud and enterprise group.
In other words, he’s a nerd. Oh, and did I mention he’s also a big fan of cricket? Definitely a nerd. And now he’s the CEO of Microsoft. Of all the people in the world, Microsoft chose a nerd to be its boss.
Nadella joins a long list of nerds running technology companies, big and small. People like Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, and Larry Page. Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter graduated with degrees in computer and communication sciences before trying out his hand at comedy, a very nerd-like thing to do. Yahoo's Marissa Mayer graduated Stanford with a B.S. in symbolic systems (what the hell is that?) and an M.S. in computer science where her specialization was in artificial intelligence. And if that isn’t nerdy enough, Mayer reportedly dated Larry Page at one time.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos attended Princeton University and graduated with a B.S. in Engineering, specializing in electrical engineering and computer science. Oh, and while he was at Princeton, he also served as the President of the Princeton chapter of the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. Now that’s some scary nerd stuff. And don’t believe for a minute that Larry Ellison, the manly-man CEO at Oracle isn’t a nerd – the guy was a computer design specialist, even though he never graduated from college.
The list goes on and on. There are exceptions of course. HP’s Meg Whitman, for example, grew up in the world of marketing and brand management. Steve Ballmer took the business route too. But for the most part it’s the nerds who rule technology companies. Scientists. Engineers. Biologists. And if they have a little bit of business sense then all the better.
Because here’s the truth: business is not that tough to learn. I know this because I’m running a profitable little business and I’m not 1/1000 as smart as any of the people I’ve mentioned above. You buy low and you sell higher. You keep your overhead under control. You figure out a simple return on investment. You don’t put all your eggs in one basket. The typical marketing, accounting or management degree that takes the average student four years to complete at state college would take a smart nerd half the amount of time. It’s just math. In fact, for the most part business is pretty simple math. Especially when you compare it to the math and logic the nerds do in their engineering, physics and computer science programs.
If you run a technology company you will do better if you are a nerd. If you are investing in a technology company you will have more chance of success if a nerd is leading it. I recently asked Sean Flynn, a partner at Shasta Ventures about Swipely, one of their investments.
Swipely, named by Forbes as “One of America’s Most Promising Companies” is aiming to enable local merchants to inexpensively capture and analyze data in a way once reserved only for big businesses. The Rhode Island company is run by Angus Davis, an already successful entrepreneur who holds seven (issued and pending) patents and who worked his way up in the world developing websites and products for companies like Netscape. I’ve never met or spoken to Davis, but he also seems kind of nerdy to me. And Flynn loves that. “It’s not just the idea for a company,” Flynn told me. “It’s the person running the company. We love Angus and that’s why we invested.” Another victory for another nerd.
Successful technology companies are generally run by nerds. I could argue that nerds, being more technical, also have more vision and relevance in a more technical world. And that is true. But more importantly if you are a nerd running a company than you will be respected by the other nerds who just want to do nerdy things and are happy to let you be the boss because you’re a nerd like them. You will be able to speak their language and understand their problems. You will know better how to manage their time and create expectations. You can talk about Star Trek and Comic-Con and pick apart Myth Busters.
You can always hire business people to do your accounting and finance. You can always find salesmen to sell your products (and those nerds with a smidgen of communication skills excel better there too). People who get technical degrees in college and can develop the skills to socialize, speak to groups and better understand other people are the ones who often emerge as leaders of tech companies. Of course, they will always be nerds at heart. Just ask Nadella. Cricket? Ugh.
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