The Most Influential IT Thought-Leaders
I would like to introduce a new series, which I refer to as “IT Influencers.” The field of Information Technology is home to many innovators and thought-leaders. These individuals, all from vastly differing walks of life, share a commonality: Their expertise and unique insights have made them some of the most influential members in their professions and in IT. This is a diverse lot, including individuals like:
- Walt Mossberg, Journalist/Columnist
- David Pogue, Yahoo! Technology Columnist & CBS News Correspondent
- Salman Khan, Executive Director and Founder of Khan Academy
- Sir James Dyson, Inventor, Industrial Designer & Founder of Dyson Company
- Dr. James Goodnight, CEO of SAS Institute
- Sebastian Thrun, CEO and Co-Founder of Udacity
- Rich Karlgaard, Publisher of Forbes
- Yves Béhar, Founder and Principal Designer of Fuseproject
- Vicente Fox, Former President of Mexico
- Emerson Spartz, CEO of Spartz Media
In the kick-off article to the series, I highlight some common denominators among these trailblazers:
- All of them have thought about business value first, and technology second
- Most have worked in other business disciplines prior to ascending to the CIO role
- Many work within organizations that promote from within
- A majority have an MBA or advanced degree in a business discipline
- Many also have spent time as consultants
Below are the IT Influencers Series’ most recent posts:
Emerson Spartz started his first company at the age of 12, when he founded MuggleNet, which became the number one Harry Potter fan site. In his early teens, he managed a team that grew into the hundreds. He wrote best selling books, hosted the most listened to podcast, and dreamed of additional businesses to develop. To make his schedule more flexible, he suggested to his parents that he be home-schooled.
At a time, when many influential technologists (Peter Thiel most prominent among them) eschew the value of university education for those with an entrepreneurial bent, Spartz attended the business school at Notre Dame as an undergraduate, and used the time to strengthen his ability to learn while seeking the next new idea to pursue.
Soon after graduation, he founded Spartz Media, the organization he still runs now. His area of expertise is virality, a topic that he and his team have distilled into a science of sorts. He describes his methods herein. At 27, he has been an entrepreneur for 15 years, and speaks with the authority of a seasoned veteran.
Recently, I was thrilled to be invited to meet with former Mexican President Vicente Fox at his presidential library, the first for a Mexican president. Among the many opportunities he has pursued is to develop a Charlie Rose-style interview program. I was a guest on his show, and he agreed to return the favor.
Fox’s story is an extraordinary one. He rose from delivery route supervisor to President of Coca-Cola Mexico. He was elected as Governor of Guanajuato after first serving in the federal Chamber of Deputies. As he explained in my interview, he did not grow up dreaming of being President of Mexico. Rather, he got involved because he had grown so frustrated with corruption. He won an improbable victory on his 58th birthday, July 2, 2000. In this interview, we spoke about his major accomplishments as president, the importance of thinking strategically, the transformative power of technology, as well as a variety of other topics.
Yves Béhar is an unusually busy executive, even by Silicon Valley standards. He is the founder and principal designer of fuseproject, an award-winning industrial design and brand development firm. Béhar is also Chief Creative Officer of the wearable technology company Jawbone, and Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of August, creators of the first Smart Lock. He is perhaps the most decorated industrial designer of the past 15 years, and his clients (past and present) include Apple, Google, GE, Samsung, Herman Miller, and Prada. Since 2005, Béhar has also been the chief industrial designer of One Laptop per Child, and he is also the Creative Co-Founder of OUYA, an open sourced gaming platform. Additionally, he has long-term partnerships with various other companies.
When I met Béhar in his office in San Francisco, I wondered how he found the time to be involved in so many meaningful projects and enterprises. He indicated that it is a combination of having wonderful partners across all of his work streams coupled with a joyful feeling of always being open to inspiration that can fuel his creative process. He indicates that it is his life experiences, and being in the milieu of creative people wherever he goes that allows him to be involved in so many creative ventures without feeling either overburdened or tapped of good ideas.
There are few entrepreneurs who can compete with Sebastian Thrun in terms of creativity and breadth of innovation. He led the development of Stanley, a robotic vehicle on the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. He was a founder of the Google X Lab, and parlayed his earlier success with Stanley into the Google driverless car system. He also was among the leaders who developed Google Glass. All the while he was a professor first at Carnegie Mellon and then at Stanford.
In early 2012, based on inspiration from Salman Khan of Khan Academy, he co-founded Udacity, a for-profit education company offering massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Thrun’s Stanford course “CS 373: Programming a Robotic Car” was among the first couple of courses offered through Udacity, and it attracted 160,000 students in 190 countries. The youngest was ten and the oldest was 70. Moreover, none of the top-400 students were Stanford students. He was so excited about what he learned, that he gave up his post at Stanford to focus on Udacity full-time.
Rich Karlgaard is widely known as the publisher of this magazine. What may be lesser known is how diverse and entrepreneurial his career has been. He started two magazines, Upside and ASAP within the Forbes banner. He has founded a venture capital firm, Garage Technology Ventures, and is an advisor to multiple other VCs. He also founded Silicon Valley’s premier business and technology forum, a 7,500-member strong organization called the Churchill Club. Is there a thread that runs through all of those things? As such, he has become one of the most influential figures in technology and business more generally.
Having had the pleasure to get to know Rich, one of his primary gifts is storytelling, and identifying what is interesting and special in others. This strength is in full-blossom in his new book, The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success. Rich has long had a curiosity to determine the factors that have led some companies to endure during good times and bad. Especially in this day-and-age when analytics rule, he focuses on “softer” factors, chief among them being culture. Though he lives and works in the heart of Silicon Valley, he left the bubble of that region to profile companies in places like Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Northwestern Mutual), Rochester, Minnesota (The Mayo Clinic), and Memphis, Tennessee (FedEx). I spoke with him to find out more about what he learned that other companies should institute to develop a more lasting success.
Jim Goodnight is one of the great technology entrepreneurs of the past fifty years. His emphasis on data analytics as a business model starting over 40 years ago with the development of Statistical Analysis System (SAS) while he was an academic at North Carolina State was quite prescient, presaging the analytics boom that has taken over so many industries by multiple decades. Over the years, SAS has been used by pharmaceuticals companies to help them analyze their drug pipelines better, by banks to help them assess who to give credit cards to, and to an increasing extent by a wide array of companies to assess fraudulent activity and risk management, which Goodnight suggests will be a significant area of growth for SAS.
Goodnight has built a multi-billion dollar software company without going public or seeking suitors to buy the company. He points to the advantage that he had in receiving early funding from government and academic sources rather than from venture capital, which meant there was no pressure to create a financial event for his investors. As a result, he has been able to successfully steer his company through many business cycles while avoiding significant layoffs that are de rigeur among so many major companies. This has been a cultural differentiator, and is one of the reasons that SAS is regularly chosen among the best places to work in the United States.
Sir James Dyson is a modern day Edison. In a world where products are typically released to the public as quickly as possible, Dyson and his team work through hundreds and sometimes even thousands of prototypes of a product before the public sees them. With an estimated net worth of $4.5 billion, Dyson has the wherewithal to operate in such a manner, but I was curious how he developed his methods, and how he influenced his teams before he was considered perhaps the UK’s greatest living innovator.
Despite his vast wealth and resources, that was not the measuring stick that he used in the early days of his career. Instead, he had an obsession to make elegant and easy-to-use products that people wanted to use on a daily basis. As he has explained it, if you look at the design of a ski, you will see the passion of the person who created it. They designed it to use themselves. The same care and passion has not traditionally been put into products like the vacuum cleaner, however. Who has a passion for vacuuming, especially when it is a loud messy process? Dyson was frustrated by these factors when he created a better vacuum cleaner. In the process, Dyson has influenced others who have chosen to innovate in categories of products that had long been thought of as difficult to improve upon. He has also unintentionally spawned a number of imitators along the way. Through it all, Dyson has remained singular in his focus on perfection, realizing that business success would follow. In the process his influence has been felt much further than he might have thought early in his career.
David Pogue has become a household name in tech criticism from his “State of the Art” column in New York Times along with multi-media contributions to PBS and CBS among others. Last week, Pogue launched Yahoo Tech at CES in Las Vegas to much fanfare. The new digital magazine is quite sophisticated in its fit and finish, and it remains as such no matter the device with which it is accessed. Its innovative article tiles allow readers to read articles while all other articles remain on the same page. As Pogue explains below, this should make the site stickier and more psychologically satisfying.
When I last spoke with Pogue in mid-2013, he was firmly planted at theNew York Times and referred to his post as “the greatest job in the world.” I wondered what had changed in the ensuing six months and what else he had planned for Yahoo Tech.
I have had the a good fortune of speaking with good number of the leaders in education technology today. Since so many of these players have emerged from academe, the competition between companies is fierce certainly, but there is also a collegial willingness to acknowledge the successes of other companies. In the case of non-profits like edX, CEO Anant Agarawal says, the more companies that enter this space, the merrier. (Stay tuned for my interview with Agarwal on January 20th.) Several of these leaders acknowledge that the most influential person to the MOOC landscape has been Salman Khan. As Agarwal lists the genesis of the MOOCs, he lists Khan and his Khan Academy first among the major players. Sebastian Thrun acknowledged in my interview with him that “I stumbled into this after listening to a gentleman named Sal Khan of Khan Academy. In his speech he noted that he had tens of millions of students in his classes. I was teaching at Stanford at the time and had tens of dozens of students in my classes, and I felt I should try something different and see if we could do what I do and scale it to many people.” In fact, in my podcast interview with Thrun, as he listed those who had been most influential to him over the course of his career, he listed Khan on the short list.
Walt Mossberg has been called the most influential technology critic in the world. As I prepared for our interview, I was interested in the similarities between Mossberg and the famous wine critic, Robert Parker. Each is a powerful commentator whose opinions can make or break product launches, whose field of criticism is dominated in this country by activities in Northern California. Yet each chooses to live in Maryland, each refuses to accept gifts or perform advisory roles to those companies whose products he critiques, and each relishes the role of criticism even if greater remuneration would follow from joining such companies. Mossberg made quite clear that the mantle of “most influential technology critic” was not one that he chose.