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4/28/2006
03:55 PM
John Soat
John Soat
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IT Confidential: Technology Is A Cult Of Personality

Some people are born great, some people achieve greatness, and some people have greatness thrust upon them." That's from Shakespeare, though I first heard it ascribed to Al Capone, which makes sense in its own weird way.

The technology industry is a cult of personality. Whether a charismatic leader is actually good for a company is a hot topic in management-theory circles, but the arc of American business has been driven by strong personalities. And nowhere so much as in the computer industry, which celebrates its founding fathers (mothers, not so much) by raising them to almost mythic status. Think of Bill Gates: Was he not, obviously, born to greatness? Steve Jobs? Larry Ellison? OK, maybe not him.

Why the mythmaking? Because Americans love their heroes and hate their businesspeople. The way for America to absorb the disruptive changes brought on by information technology is to mythologize those involved as quintessential American heroes (as opposed to rapacious capitalists) who triumph over adversity, the embodiment of Horatio Alger's "luck and pluck" characters.

Which brings us to Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. Mr. Small-Town-Indiana stepped down last week as CEO of the company he helped found in 1982, bowing to pressure brought on by Sun's erratic (to put it kindly) financial performance. A seminal figure in the history of the computer industry, McNealy was clearly someone who had greatness thrust upon him.

McNealy is smart and aggressive; he was an early proponent of networking, open standards, and Java, the Internet programming language created at Sun. But he let a stubborn sense of idealism and a narrow vision cloud his business judgment. McNealy's barbed comments about Gates and Microsoft became a joke--on him. He always seemed bewildered that the computer industry at its essence just wasn't fair.

Then there's Sanjay Kumar, former chief executive of Computer Associates (now known simply as CA), who pleaded guilty last week to charges stemming from business and accounting irregularities at the enterprise software vendor dating back to 2000. A true rags-to-riches story, Kumar was born in what's now known as Sri Lanka in 1962. He was the protégé of CA co-founder Charles Wang and his hand-picked successor. Wang's take-no-prisoners personality set the tone for CA's culture of confrontation and aggression, which manifested itself in a slash-and-burn acquisition strategy and antagonistic relationships with many of its customers. It's tempting see Kumar as a victim of that culture, but it's more likely he was its ultimate practitioner.

Both McNealy and Kumar are archetypes of the computer industry, closer in spirit to what actually drove it--and keeps driving it--than the myths (as opposed to the realities) of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. But so what? If mainstream America wants to believe the Google guys are a couple of nerdy brainiac do-gooders, let 'em. To quote from the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

My brain says nerdy do-gooder but my heart says rapacious capitalist. Which way are you leaning? Send your vote, or an industry tip, to jsoat@cmp.com or phone 516-562-5326.

The News Show has a cult following--following to make sure it goes straight home. Tune in and see, at noon EDT every weekday, at TheNewsShow.tv or on InformationWeek.com.


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