The myth of the genius tech inventor is holding us back
Bureaucrats versus tech whizzes
Some of those are natural concerns about companies as they grow large. Some of the sentiment probably reflects nostalgia for a time when tech inventing was everything. Except that is a selective reading of tech history.
Celebrated Silicon Valley inventors are often both heart and head. Jobs was a capable technologist but mostly a brilliant pitchman and brand genius. Amazon is a reflection of Bezos’ inventive ideas and his financial wizardry. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were ultracompetitive business strategists more than they were software-coding masterminds. Elon Musk is a great inventor, but his SpaceX is a great company partly because he works with operations experts including Gwynne Shotwell.
A belief that ingenuity was the most important ability of these tech icons “obscured the core skill set that made these people extraordinary,” said Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington professor who researches the history of technology companies.
“The lone genius is a powerful myth because it has a grain of truth,” she said, but it also ignores other skills and the collaboration necessary to bring any idea to life.
“Even Thomas Edison had many, many people in his laboratory,” O’Mara said.
Mickle’s book makes it clear that Apple as we know it today would not exist without Cook and other technocrats. Developing the iPhone was a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment, but it took obsessive nerds like Cook to ensure that Apple could manufacture hundreds of millions of perfect copies year after year and not go broke.
It is also becoming clearer that the skills necessary for technology-enabled transformations are changing.
Technology is no longer confined to shiny Ive inventions in a cardboard box. It has become an enabler to reimagine systems like health care, manufacturing and transportation.
Sure, that requires a creative thinker who can come up with artificial intelligence code, virtual worlds or satellites that beam internet service to Earth.
But at the risk of sounding woo-woo, it also requires a curiosity about the complexity of people and the world, an ability to navigate institutional and human inertia, and the persuasion skills to summon the collective will to pursue a brighter future. The power to invent is necessary, but it is not enough.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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