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December 4, 1997updated 03 Sep 2016 6:58pm


By CBR Staff Writer

The second part of a two-part article about life at the top.

Despite the many stories of college dropouts who went on to become high-tech whiz-kids – Gates never made it through Harvard and Ellison never graduated from the University of Illinois – a degree and, in many cases, some postgraduate study in engineering is the norm among IT CEOs. There are some exceptions. Ted Smith originally trained as an aeronautical engineer, but worked with electronics while in the US Air Force. When you work in a wind tunnel, it gives you big ideas, he jokes. The ‘cool’ image of the technology careers – often inspired by its sometimes flamboyant CEOs – plays another important role. On the West coast, every kid wants to be the head of a computer company [on graduation]. They want it like some kids want to be a pop star, says Ron Skates, CEO of Data General. But there are some serious doubts as to where the next generation of the technology elite is to come from. Recently released figures from the US Department of Education show that the number of undergraduates being awarded computer science degrees has plummeted by 41% in the last 10 years. Many of the ones that do study engineering and science now remain at college to do an MBA. That tendency was for many years applauded by high-tech CEOs as preparing graduates for the real cut-and-thrust of business. Now, a certain skepticism has crept in as executives start to realize that an MBA is no substitute for experience.

By Jessica Twentyman

According to David House of Bay Networks, An MBA teaches valuable skills, but you get these kids who all expect to be a CEO in two weeks. They don’t understand they have more, much more, to learn. Gibson believes there are other ways to gain knowledge outside of the university. I was the first person in my family to go to university, and I worked my way through, he says. I was a truck driver, a teamster – by the time I left, I had a helluva lot of real world experience. Some CEOs maintain links with universities – either their own alma maters, or a local university – from which they often source graduates. Some give some of their time. Ted Smith is on the board of the computer science department at the University of California’s Irvine campus, and assists in advising graduates about their career options. Others make financial donations. In January this year, PeopleSoft CEO Dave Duffield, who studied electrical engineering at Cornell University in New York State, made a gift of $20m toward the construction of laboratories and classrooms to train a new generation of scientists and engineers. You get to a point in life, says Duffield, where you wake up to the world and look outside your little box. I’ve made a ton, and you can’t take it all with you. Similarly, in 1996, Charles Wang, CEO of Computer Associates, pledged $20m to create an Asian-American cultural center at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and Bill Gates donated $15m to Harvard University for computer science and engineering programs. Given that the job of CEO demands long working weeks, it is perhaps hardly surprising that many express an aversion to spending their free time with customers. I don’t play golf with customers and I don’t take them to dinner, says Eric Garen. It’s bullshit, and I just don’t believe in it. David House, by contrast, often dines with clients and prospects. I find most people very interesting, he explains, especially those who have risen to positions of power.

Socializing with industry peers

There are also mixed views on the value of socializing with industry peers. Although countless opportunities are laid on by industry organizations, there is a reluctance to spend valuable free time discussing work issues. 90% of it is hot air, says Bill Gibson. The company takes up too much time, and I prefer to spend the rest with my wife and family – they’re more rewarding, says Gordon of Apertus. Most CEOs insist on keeping their weekends free, and on taking at least 20 days vacation a year. These vacations are the time when they can really enjoy their compensation packages. They speak of skiing in Telluride and Steamboat Springs, and beach holidays in the luxury resorts of Hawaii and Mexico. But the strain of the CEO lifestyle can take its toll on family life. When I was at Aldus, recalls Jeremy Jaech of Visio, there was nothing else going on in my life apart from my job. As a direct result, he and his wife separated, pushing him into a careful reconsideration of his priorities. Jaech and his wife reconciled, (Thank God, he says), but the sour experience has fundamentally changed his approach to work and his company employees. I tell them they have to have a life if they want to work for Visio, he jokes. In his book, Accidental Empires, Robert X Cringley describes Silicon Valley as a place where job satisfaction is measured in dollars, and an opulent retirement by age 40 is the goal. That must have been written before any of the main characters reached 40. The 40-plus generation of CEOs have not exactly let go. Dusa came out of retirement after three years to accept the CEO position at Digi. Ted Smith seems determined to keep battling on. Jaech points to Scott Oki, 49, ex-Microsoft, who now sits on the board at Visio: There’s a man who’s figured out how to retire, but he’s as busy as he’s ever been. But despite the expensive distractions that their professional lives afford them, work is hard to escape. The weekend is a great time to think about the business, away from the day-to-day routine, says Smith of Filenet. I may be physically away, but emotionally, I’m always there.

This article first appeared in Computer Business Review.

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