Beware the pretty ones? This isn’t high school

Normally, I’d be the first to agree with an article whose premise implies that the nature of the tech industry is changing, because when is it not? However, I’m not sure I agree with the central premise of this article by Jon Evans at TechCrunch. He asserts that the tech industry was originally the personal playground of geeks and has become co-opted by the “cool kids” as the industry has matured and grown.

It is true, as Evans contends, that many geeks are motivated more by the work than by impressing other people or making money, and that the tech industry probably offers more opportunities to people like that than some other industries.

But I think Evans’ idea of the geek vs. the pretty people is, well, short-sighted, and kind of “high schoolish.”  It is not us vs. them – there isn’t even an us or them. “People skills” and “technical skills” are not mutually exclusive.  And they never have been.

Yes, it is true that the tech industry has been the go-to “safe haven” for technically minded, socially awkward people, but what Evans is really seeing when he suggests that a new class of people with “MBAs and social graces” are “shouldering the misfits and weirdoes out of the way” is not a societal change but an economic one.

At the high end, entrepreneurial skills in technology are the same as entrepreneurial skills in other ventures as well. It was the same entrepreneurial skills from the music business that Dr. Dre brought to Beats, and then eventually to Apple. Or another example: both Ashton Kutcher and Topher Grace became big on “That 70’s Show” and went on to have successful movie careers. However, while Grace decided to pursue his passion for directing and film editing, Kutcher decided to start a tech venture capital firm.

True, there’s something to be said about how tech has become so ubiquitous and accessible that owning a tech company is far more “cool” than “nerdy,” but the fact that we have entrepreneurs coming from all areas of business, and not simply from within the technological industry itself, is a sign that the tech industry is mature. It is as much a part of the American economic landscape as the oil industry, the financial industry, the pharmaceutical industry, etc.

Here’s the thing about mature industries – as companies grow to larger and larger sizes, they tend to become more risk-averse. The largest tech companies fall into this pattern as well – some earlier than others.

For example, IBM started from a merger of three companies founded by inventors and organized by “people person” Charles Ranlett Flint. Soon afterward, Thomas J. Watson – another “people person” – ran it. (This was in 1914, by the way, so this is not a new phenomenon.) By the time the personal computer revolution came around and created what we think of as the “modern” tech industry, IBM was already seen as the stodgy old “big business” that didn’t “get it” when it came to technical ideas.

Another example: Xerox actually hired great technological people to come up with innovative concepts at Xerox Parc, like the GUI, but the business people in charge couldn’t figure out how to (or just didn’t want to) market it, and so the Xerox Star sold only 25,000 units.

So when Jon Evans talks about tech people being pushed out of the tech industry, it seems that he’s missing the point. As companies become bigger, they become more conservative.

If you have a truly disruptive technology, if you are an innovator or inventor – then you are the only person on this block to tap into a new market. There is plenty of “low hanging fruit,” and with few employees, your overhead costs are low. When you grow to a medium-sized business (which is generally the point at which you consider having a marketing department instead of a marketing person) then you need those business and people-person experts in order to tap into the yet unexplored corners of the market and maximize your return on investment. Small tech companies need tech skills more than people skills in order to create supply; medium-sized and large companies need both in order create demand.

As for the other point of Evans’ article, that society has co-opted “geeky” as “cool,” so long as it is seen as safe? Isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t it better to be co-opted than shunned? Isn’t it better to be part of the culture than to be excluded from it?

Packet Design has a history as geeky as any, and our world is getting no less complex. Arguably, with SDN, it’s getting more so and the geeks are getting geekier. Certainly, the path we are on is to make our very complex technology intuitive to use and derive business value via modern, web-based workflows. We think that’s cool.