(Autistic) visionaries are not natural-born leaders
This is a linkpost for https://guzey.com/autistic-leaders/. I figured readers of EA Forum would enjoy it because I suspect that lots of people here think that people like Elon Musk, Larry Page, and Steve Jobs were destined to lead (like I did in the past). I no longer think this is true and this has implications for those who would like to build an organization but are hesitant because they don’t feel like they’re natural leaders.
Update on the word “(Autistic)” in the title: I’m not aware of any of the people I discuss in the post being diagnosed with any autism spectrum disorders. However, it does seem to me that they all exhibited a host of traits associated with autism spectrum disorders. I settled on using the word because it’s used to refer to people who exhibit such traits (Merriam Webster: “of, relating to, or marked by autism or autism spectrum disorder”) and it’s important for the point I’m making in the post (despite exhibiting those traits they managed to become great leaders) but putting it in parentheses to make it clear that I’m not making a claim about diagnoses.
“Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were two young dudes without any experience at running a business who just started building computers in a garage and ended up turning Apple into a giant company”
“Elon Musk started Zip2 straight out of college and without any experience at running a business and turned it into a company that was sold for $300m just 3 years later”
“Larry Page and Sergey Brin were two CS grad students without any experience at running a business who hit on a great idea and ended up turning Google into a giant company. VCs made them hire Schmidt as the CEO of Google but Larry and Sergey were doing great by themselves”
These narratives create the impression that all the people mentioned above are not just visionaries who changed the world but that they were also natural-born leaders who magically knew how to run a company right from the moment of birth all by themselves and without help from anyone else.
In fact, they were all terrible at running a company and managing people when they were starting out. Had they been discouraged by the fact that they were terrible leaders who had no idea how to run a company or had they tried to do it all by themselves and without plenty of adult supervision, they would’ve probably never done anything of substance.
Mike Markkula (an engineer and marketing manager from Intel) hired all the key experienced talent that ran Apple (Berlin L. Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age. Simon and Schuster; 2017 Nov 7.):
Steve Jobs had great potential as an evangelist, Markkula could tell. But reaching the size and scale that Markkula anticipated for Apple would require much more than the passion and charisma of a starry-eyed twenty-one-year-old. Apple would need a marketing expert who understood logistics and how to coordinate planning, forecasting, sales, and customer service; someone who could bridge the needs of middle-class suburban families to the tinkerings of Wozniak, Jobs, and the hippies at Homebrew. Markkula knew the perfect person for the job: himself. “I knew there was not another person who had the foggiest idea how to market a personal computer,” he says. …
Markkula joined Apple as chairman of the board and head of marketing. Jobs and Wozniak were happy to have him in charge. They had known since the moment they had formed their partnership that they would benefit from the assistance of someone with more business experience. As Jobs later explained (a bit confusingly, since Markkula’s money was the only money being offered to Apple), “We didn’t necessarily want Markkula’s money—we wanted Markkula.” Jobs added, “Woz and I decided we’d rather have 50 percent of something than all of nothing.” Without Markkula, there would have been no company.
Markkula began recruiting. His first offer was to Mike Scott, one of the two men with whom he had shared the closet-sized office at Fairchild. Markkula and Scott shared a birthday, February 11, and every year had lunch to celebrate. Markkula had followed Scott’s career since leaving Fairchild for Intel. In 1972, Scott had moved to National Semiconductor to work for the third Fairchild office mate, Gene Carter, as a marketing manager. Scott was then promoted to direct hybrid operations, a job in which he oversaw every aspect of the hybrid circuits business, including manufacturing. …
Scott and Carter, along with Markkula—three men in their mid- to late thirties who had spent the past dozen years as middle managers in semiconductor companies—formed the core of Apple’s earliest business operations. Joining them was a CFO, Ken Zerbe, hired from another semiconductor firm, American Microsystems. Most histories of Apple focus on the young, long-haired, Levi’s-wearing technologists who worked with Jobs and Wozniak and looked so different from the typical buttoned-up, IBM-type technology worker of the 1970s. But in many ways, Markkula’s task was to make Apple an exemplary technology company according to the “typical” measures. It needed to be profitable, manufacture reliable products in predictable volumes, and deliver them through stable sales distribution channels. Markkula looked to managers whom he knew and trusted in the semiconductor industry to make that happen. “We all knew the semiconductor business inside out and backwards,” he explains. They had already worked through manufacturing disasters, supply problems, failed processes, and design glitches.
Jobs had no idea about anything business-related:
Standing in Jobs’s garage, Markkula knew that Wozniak’s Apple II computer was a magnificent answer to the hopes of anyone who had ever longed to own a machine. What he did not know, however, was whether a company could be built around that machine. He gave Jobs and Wozniak the same advice that he had shared with other aspiring entrepreneurs: write a business plan. Figure out your supply costs, the size of the market, the distribution paths. He thinks he even suggested that since it was impossible to estimate the potential size of a nonexistent market (for personal computers), the number of telephones in US households might provide a good starting point.
Over the coming weeks, as the autumn weather crisped, Jobs (and occasionally Wozniak) would drive to Markkula’s new house, a larger home a few blocks from his old one. The young men met Markkula in the small cabana he had built in his backyard near the pool. Wozniak was wowed: “He had a beautiful house in the hills overlooking the lights of Cupertino, this gorgeous view, amazing wife, the whole package.” At the end of every meeting, Markkula assigned homework: think through who the competition might be, what a reasonable profit might be, how you might staff the company, how fast you would want it to grow. Each of those factors would form a component of the plan that would tell Jobs and Wozniak if they could build a viable business.
Every meeting, Jobs returned without having done the work.
As the weeks passed, Markkula realized that Jobs and Wozniak were never going to write a business plan. How could they? Wozniak had his job at Hewlett-Packard and no interest in starting a company. Had it been up to him, he would have given away his computer designs or sold them at cost. Jobs was ferociously interested in launching a business, but in the fall of 1976, that meant trying to deliver the boards that the Byte Shop had ordered and then using that income to buy supplies to build more boards. Twenty-one years old and with fifteen months’ experience in the corporate world (all of it working for Atari as a technician), Jobs could not have known how to answer the questions and make the estimates that Markkula requested. …
I get more mention than I deserve. For some reason I get this key position of being one of two people that started the company that started the revolution. Steve and I get a lot of credit, but Mike Markkula was probably more responsible for our early success, and you never hear about him. In the end, I hope there’s a little note somewhere that says I designed a good computer. I’m just kind of amazed how many people say, “We owe so much to you.” They just better not act like I wasn’t a top engineer. That would upset me.
Musk notes (a) that “Ashlee Vance’s biography is mostly correct, but also rife with errors & never independently fact-checked, despite my request that he do so”, so I’m only highlighting the bit where Vance quotes Musk directly:
Years later, after he had time to reflect on the Zip2 situation, Musk realized that he could have handled some of the situations with employees better. “I had never really run a team of any sort before,” Musk said. “I’d never been a sports captain or a captain of anything or managed a single person. I had to think, Okay, what are the things that affect how a team functions. The first obvious assumption would be that other people will behave like you. But that’s not true. Even if they would like to behave like you, they don’t necessarily have all the assumptions or information that you have in your mind. So, if I know a certain set of things, and I talk to a replica of myself but only communicate half the information, you can’t expect that the replica would come to the same conclusion. You have to put yourself in a position where you say, ‘Well, how would this sound to them, knowing what they know?’”
Employees at Zip2 would go home at night, come back, and find that Musk had changed their work without talking to them, and Musk’s confrontational style did more harm than good. “Yeah, we had some very good software engineers at Zip2, but I mean, I could code way better than them. And I’d just go in and fix their fucking code,” Musk said. “I would be frustrated waiting for their stuff, so I’m going to go and fix your code and now it runs five times faster, you idiot. There was one guy who wrote a quantum mechanics equation, a quantum probability on the board, and he got it wrong. I’m like, ‘How can you write that?’ Then I corrected it for him. He hated me after that. Eventually, I realized, Okay, I might have fixed that thing but now I’ve made the person unproductive. It just wasn’t a good way to go about things.”
In 2001, Larry Page tried to cancel project managers at Google. The Untold Story Of Larry Page’s Incredible Comeback (a):
By July 2001, BackRub had been renamed Google and was doing really well. It had millions of users, an impressive list of investors, and 400 employees, including about a half-dozen project managers.
As at most startups, in Google’s first year there were no management layers between the CEO, Page, and the engineers. But as the company grew, it added a layer of managers, people who could meet with Page and the rest of Google’s senior executives and give the engineers prioritized orders and deadlines.
Page, now 28, hated it. Since Google hired only the most talented engineers, he thought that extra layer of supervision was not just unnecessary but also an impediment. He also suspected that Google’s project managers were steering engineers away from working on projects that were personally important to him. For example, Page had outlined a plan to scan all the world’s books and make them searchable online, but somehow no one was working on it. Page blamed the project managers.
Some dramatic streamlining was called for, he resolved. Instead of the project managers, all of Google’s engineers would report to one person, a newly hired VP of engineering named Wayne Rosing, and Rosing would report directly to him.
Google’s human resources boss, a serious woman with bangs named Stacey Sullivan, thought Page’s plan was nuts, according to “I’m Feeling Lucky,” Douglas Edwards’ inside view of Google’s early years. Sullivan told Page so. “You can’t just self-organize!” she said. “People need someone to go to when they have problems!”
Page ignored her.
Sullivan took her concerns to Eric Schmidt. In March, Schmidt had become the chairman of Google. Everyone assumed he’d be CEO as soon as he could leave his full-time job as CEO of Novell.
Schmidt agreed with Sullivan. So did Page’s executive coach, Bill Campbell. Everyone called Campbell “Coach” because he’d once been Columbia University’s football coach. He still walked and talked like he was pacing a sideline.
As Steven Levy detailed in his own rollicking Google history, “In the Plex,” one evening, Campbell got into a big argument with Page about his plan. To prove his point, Campbell brought engineer after engineer into Page’s office to offer their perspective. One after another, they told Page that they actually preferred to have a manager — someone who could end disagreements and give their teams direction.
But Page was determined.
Schmidt in particular may have been the worst person for Sullivan to turn to for help back then. Page had never been behind hiring him — or any CEO, for that matter. Google’s investors made him do it.
Before long, Schmidt might have presented an obstacle to Page’s plan. But not yet. It was July 2001 and Schmidt hadn’t officially become CEO. So Page went ahead.
He deputized Rosing to break the news.
That afternoon, all 130 or so engineers and a half-dozen project managers showed up. They stood outside Page’s office amid Google’s mismatched cubicles and couches — which, like the rest of the company’s office furniture, had been bought from failed startups on the cheap.
Finally, Rosing, a bald man in glasses, began to speak. Rosing explained that engineering was getting a reorganization: All engineers would now report to him, all project managers were out of a job.
The news did not go over well. The project managers were stunned. They hadn’t been warned. They’d just been fired in front of all their colleagues.
The engineers demanded an explanation. So Page gave one. With little emotion, speaking in his usual flat, robotic tone, he explained that he didn’t like having non-engineers supervising engineers. Engineers shouldn’t have to be supervised by managers with limited tech knowledge. Finally, he said, Google’s project managers just weren’t doing a very good job.
As Page talked, he kept his gaze averted, resisting direct eye contact. Though he was an appealing presence with above-average height and nearly black hair, he was socially awkward.
The news was met with a chorus of grumbling. Finally, one of the engineers in the room, Ron Dolin, started yelling at Page. He said an all-hands meeting was no place to give a performance review. What Page was doing was “completely ridiculous,” he said, and “totally unprofessional.”
“It sucked,” one of the project managers present said later. “I felt humiliated by it. Larry said in front of the company that we didn’t need managers, and he talked about what he didn’t like about us. He said things that hurt a lot of people.”
In the end, the layoffs didn’t stick. The project managers Page had intended to fire that day were instead brought into Google’s growing operations organization, under the leadership of Urs Hözle.
Page’s reorganization didn’t last long either. While some engineers thrived without supervision, problems arose. Projects that needed resources didn’t get them. Redundancy became an issue. Engineers craved feedback and wondered where their careers were headed.
Eventually, Google started hiring project managers again.
“I did my best to advise that there is true value in management, and you can set a tone by how you manage this,” Stacy Sullivan recalled in “I’m Feeling Lucky.” “Hopefully it was a lesson learned for Larry.”
By August 2001, Schmidt had fully extricated himself from his responsibilities at Novell. He became Google’s CEO — so-called adult supervision for Page and his co-founder, Brin.
And for a long time, Larry Page was very unhappy.
Page and Jobs:
Everyone knows the Steve Jobs story — how he was fired from the company he founded — Apple — only to return from exile decades later to save the business.
What’s less-well understood is that Apple’s board and investors were absolutely right to fire Jobs. Early in his career, he was petulant, mean, and destructive. Only by leaving Apple, humbling himself, and finding a second success (with Pixar) was he able to mature into the leader who would return to
Apple and build it into the world’s most-valuable company.
Larry Page is the Steve Jobs of Google.
Like Jobs, Page has a co-founder, Sergey Brin, but Page has always been his company’s true visionary and driving force.
And just as Apple’s investors threw Jobs out of his company, Google’s investors ignored Page’s wishes and forced him to hire a CEO to be adult supervision.
Both then underwent a long period in the wilderness. Steve Jobs’ banishment was more severe, but Page also spent years at a remove from the day-to-day world of Google.
As with Jobs, it was only through this long exile that Page was able to mature into a self-awareness of his strengths and weaknesses.
Then, like Jobs, Page came back with wild ambitions and a new resolve. …
Schmidt’s adult supervision:
Over the next several years, Google grew into a massive global business.
Always in consultation with Page and Brin, Schmidt kept things on an even keel. He hired a team of executives, built a sales force, and took Google public. …
During Google’s earnings call on Jan. 20, 2011, Schmidt announced he was done as CEO. The job was once again Larry Page’s.
Schmidt, who would become executive chairman, sent out a tweet later that day: “Adult-supervision no longer needed.”