The myth of the genius technical inventor

In the Silicon Valley it is practically an insult to say that an executive can run a company. Inventors, rather than great managers, are often distinguished in technology.

We are imagining insane scientists reviving their visions of the first personal computers, software that sets up all the websites in the world, and cool electric cars. Turning an idea into a viable and long-term business is relatively tedious.

The fact that companies are giving more power to business operators than to inventors is a constant fear among technologists. The concern is understandable. Innovation is essential and difficult to maintain now that technology is a large industry.

But fixing on an individual’s invention is, above all, a selective memory of technical history. Triumph is often the result of imagination combined with obsessive business acumen. Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are respected for their technical imagination, but also for their supremacy in business strategy, marketing, or the ability to unite people behind a common mission.

Great ideas in themselves are almost never enough. Strong leaders also need pragmatism and other skills beyond dreams. And the fact that technology is now spreading everything means that the myth of the genius technical inventor stands in the way of progress.

I was thinking about this because I started reading a new book by my colleague Trip Mikley that explores the tension between Apple’s head and its heart in the decades since Jobs’s death.

Apple CEO Tim Cook is in charge – production details. Johnny Ivy was the genius at design, helping Jobs entertain computers and create a modern smartphone. Here in 2019, I stopped working full-time at Apple and, according to Trip, complained that technocrats and “accountants” were sucking on Apple’s soul.

This is a refrain that periodically pops up among technologists and investors who say that Apple has lost touch with product invention and creativity. A similar claim was made about Microsoft during the time of its former CEO, Steve Ballmer, and we hear sometimes about Google, led by Sundar Pichai and Uber after its founder, Travis Kalanick, was pressured to resign in 2017. They fear that corporate bureaucrats will win over technical skills and heart.

Some of them are a natural concern for companies as they grow. Some sentiments probably reflect nostalgia for the period when technical invention was everything. Except that this is a selective question of technical history.

The inventors of the famous silicon field are often both the heart and the head. Jobs was a skilled technologist, but mostly a brilliant peachman and a brand genius. Amazon is a reflection of Bezos’s inventor ideas and his financial witchcraft. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were more ultra-competitive business strategists than masters of software coding. Elon Musk is an excellent inventor, but his SpaceX is an excellent company in part because he works with operations experts, including Gwyn Shotwell.

Believing that cleverness was the most important skill of these technical icons, “overshadowed the set of basic skills that made these people extraordinary,” said Margaret O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington who studies the history of technology companies.

“A lone genius is a powerful myth because he has the grain of truth,” he said, but he also neglects the other skills and collaborations necessary to implement any idea. “Even Thomas Edison had a lot, a lot of people in his lab,” O’Mara said.

It is clear from Tripp’s book that Apple, as we know it today, would not exist without Cook and other technocrats. The development of the iPhone was a once-in-a-lifetime achievement, but Cook-like obsessive nerves were needed to ensure that Apple could produce hundreds of millions of perfect copies each year and not be spoiled.

It is also becoming increasingly clear that the skills required for technology-activated transformations are changing.

Technology is no longer limited to Ive inventions placed in a cardboard box. It has become a means of re-imagining systems such as healthcare, manufacturing and transport.

Of course, this requires a creative thinker who can create a code of artificial intelligence, a virtual world, or satellites that radiate Internet service to the earth. But at the risk of sound, it also requires a curiosity about the complexity of people and the world, the ability to navigate with institutional and human inertia, and the ability to persuade to call for collective will for a brighter future. The power of invention is necessary, but it is not enough.


  • Dramatic day for Lyft and Uber: My colleague Kellen Browning wrote that Lyft had disappointed investors by disclosing its passenger number and warning that the company was having difficulty attracting a sufficient number of drivers. Uber said it had no problems but the stock prices of both companies fell today. We will continue to monitor what happens.

  • The crypto executive was not what he said. My colleague Ron Liber revealed the truth about ZenLedger’s executive company, which misrepresented his academic and professional experience and investment experience.

  • They are true believers in black market Birkin bags: The Cut writes on Reddit about a group of people who can buy luxury goods but are dedicated to buying fake versions. The group, RepLadies, “stands out for its kind of ridicule of authentic goods and its belief that buying copies is a way to bring down the system and attach it to man.” (Subscription may be required.)

Actors Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin compare the number of their professional awards and it is gratifying how much fun they have with each other.


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