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The Metamorphosis of Silicon Valley C.E.O.s: From Big to Boring

The New York Times logo The New York Times 12/09/2018 By FARHAD MANJOO

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

Elon Musk looking at the camera: Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, remains anything but boring. © Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, remains anything but boring. When Joe Barton, a Republican congressman from Texas, greeted Jack Dorsey at a congressional hearing last week, he sounded flummoxed.

“I don’t know what a Twitter C.E.O. should look like,” Mr. Barton said. “But you don’t look like what a C.E.O. of Twitter should look like.”

The congressman had a point. Mr. Dorsey — who sported a nose ring, a popped-collar shirt and a craggy Moses beard — looked more like a hipster version of a Civil War officer than a tech icon. Yet more striking than his look was his manner before skeptical lawmakers.

a group of people posing for a photo in front of a computer screen: Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, testified at a congressional hearing last week and discussed the difficulties of managing tech in a complex world. © Drew Angerer/Getty Images Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, testified at a congressional hearing last week and discussed the difficulties of managing tech in a complex world.

Faced with tough questions, Mr. Dorsey did not mount an aggressive defense of his company and his technology, as an earlier generation of tech leader might have. Instead, he demurred, conceded mistakes and generally engaged in a nuanced and seemingly heartfelt colloquy on the difficulties of managing tech in a complex world. Even in response to Mr. Barton’s comment about his look, Mr. Dorsey was solicitous. “My mom agrees with you,” he said.

Mr. Dorsey’s testimony prompted questions about what we expect from tech leaders today — and how thoroughly what we expect has been upturned in the last few years. Since the 1980s, a common leadership archetype has loomed over the tech business: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Sometimes unconsciously and often deliberately, a generation of tech leaders attempted to ape the Apple and Microsoft founders’ charisma, their quirks, their style and above all their irrepressible, hard-charging confidence, to say nothing of arrogance.

CORRECTING DATE OF ANNOUNCEMENT TO WEDNESDAY - FILE - In this file photo dated Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018, a Facebook start page is shown on a smartphone in Surfside, Fla. USA.  The social media giant Facebook said late Wednesday Aug. 22, 2018, it has banned a quiz app for refusing to be audited and concerns that data on as many as 4 million users was misused, after it found user information was shared with researchers and companies. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, FILE) © Catalyst Images CORRECTING DATE OF ANNOUNCEMENT TO WEDNESDAY - FILE - In this file photo dated Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018, a Facebook start page is shown on a smartphone in Surfside, Fla. USA. The social media giant Facebook said late Wednesday Aug. 22, 2018, it has banned a quiz app for refusing to be audited and concerns that data on as many as 4 million users was misused, after it found user information was shared with researchers and companies. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, FILE)

Mr. Dorsey — who like the late Mr. Jobs returned to a company he co-founded in order to save it — has long drawn comparisons to Mr. Jobs. Yet the congressional testimony marked a surprising rhetorical shift. Instead of the black-turtlenecked Mr. Jobs, Mr. Dorsey sounded more like Tim Cook, the understated operations manager who replaced him (and who is holding his umpteenth iPhone event on Wednesday).

That is, Mr. Dorsey sounded less like a quotable visionary who can see beyond the horizon and more like what he actually is and ought to be — a thoughtful, accessible, transparent and, despite the beard and nose ring, kind of boring manager of a serious company whose decisions have world-changing consequences.

When it comes to tech C.E.O.s, boring is the new black. Under the glare of global scrutiny, the daring, win-at-all-costs ethos that defined so much of the tech industry in the last couple of decades has been undergoing a thorough metamorphosis.

FILE- In this Nov. 11, 2000, file photo Google's co-founders, CEO Larry Page, left, and Chairman Sergey Brin, rest on bean bags at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Twenty years after Page and Brin set out to organize all of the internet’s information, the search engine they named Google has morphed into a dominating force in smartphones, online video, email, maps and much more. (AP Photo/Randi Lynn Beach, File) © Catalyst Images FILE- In this Nov. 11, 2000, file photo Google's co-founders, CEO Larry Page, left, and Chairman Sergey Brin, rest on bean bags at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Twenty years after Page and Brin set out to organize all of the internet’s information, the search engine they named Google has morphed into a dominating force in smartphones, online video, email, maps and much more. (AP Photo/Randi Lynn Beach, File)

Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook chief who was once the poster boy of breaking things and moving fast, is now sitting with magazine writers for lengthy, nuanced disquisitions on his failings. Last year, Uber replaced its controversy-magnet founder, Travis Kalanick, with Dara Khosrowshahi, whom almost nobody outside the tech industry had heard of before — a fact that the company regarded as an asset, not a liability.

Google once played up the nerdy antics of its founders, but now the company’s leaders are almost unidentifiable ciphers. Larry Page, who runs Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has become a recluse, and even Sundar Pichai, Google’s achingly pleasant chief, declined to appear at last week’s hearings.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief and the world’s wealthiest man, has been experimenting with a more daring fashion sense, but his leadership style has always been marked by patience and deliberate expansion — just the sort of boring, operator’s sensibility now in vogue.

An illuminated Google logo is seen inside an office building in Zurich September 5, 2018. REUTERS/Arnd WIegmann © Catalyst Images An illuminated Google logo is seen inside an office building in Zurich September 5, 2018. REUTERS/Arnd WIegmann

Oh, and I almost forgot about Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s C.E.O. In my defense, everyone forgets about Mr. Nadella.

It’s no mystery why tech leaders are turning inward. “Tech is now such a huge and dominant industry,” said Joshua Reeves, the proudly boring founder and chief executive of Gusto, a start-up that makes human resources software. “The fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants mind-set is just not viable when you have a trillion-dollar market capitalization or if you have more influence than many governments around the world.”

Mr. Reeves pointed out that it’s not just the big companies whose chief executives are going beige. Some of the most successful start-ups — from Lyft to Airbnb to Stripe to Slack to Pinterest — are run by understated un-visionaries, people who aim for functional competence over hypey salesmanship. (What hasn’t changed is gender; boring or no, just about everyone who runs a tech company is still a man.)

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg accompanied by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, right, before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on 'Foreign Influence Operations and Their Use of Social Media Platforms' on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018, in Washington. Google CEO did not show for the hearing. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana) © Catalyst Images Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg accompanied by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, right, before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on 'Foreign Influence Operations and Their Use of Social Media Platforms' on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018, in Washington. Google CEO did not show for the hearing. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

“A start-up that has five million people using it — that’s small for Silicon Valley, but it’s a tremendous number of people, and so even they have a large amount of responsibility in the world,” Mr. Reeves said.

The tech press has also gotten tougher. Once, novelty alone would merit coverage, but in the social media age, even the tiniest misstep can be ruinous. It has become crucial to get a leader who doesn’t speak out of turn.

There is one obvious exception to my boring-is-in thesis: Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, whose string of unconsidered tweets, taunts and other recent scandals have been anything but eye-glazing.

Jeff Bezos, Chairman and CEO of Amazon, speaks at the George W. Bush Presidential Center's Forum on Leadership in Dallas, Texas, U.S., April 20, 2018. Picture taken on April 20, 2018.  REUTERS/Rex Curry © Catalyst Images Jeff Bezos, Chairman and CEO of Amazon, speaks at the George W. Bush Presidential Center's Forum on Leadership in Dallas, Texas, U.S., April 20, 2018. Picture taken on April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Rex Curry

Mr. Musk’s latest antics were typical. In an email that he considered off the record, Mr. Musk told BuzzFeed News that a diver who had rescued boys trapped in a Thai cave was a “child rapist.” (The diver had questioned Mr. Musk’s off-the-cuff plan to free the boys; Mr. Musk had earlier apologized for calling the diver a pedophile.)

Last week, during an interview with the podcaster Joe Rogan, Mr. Musk smoked marijuana and extensively detailed what he sees as the apocalyptic possibilities of artificial intelligence. The interview — combined with news of further executive departures — helped sink Tesla’s stock further.

FILE - In this June 14, 2018, file photo, Tesla CEO Elon Musk speaks at a news conference in Chicago.  Tesla is forming a special committee to evaluate  Musk’s plan to take the company private. The electric car maker said Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018  that the committee will include three independent directors. The committee has yet to receive a formal proposal from Musk on a going private transaction. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File) © Catalyst Images FILE - In this June 14, 2018, file photo, Tesla CEO Elon Musk speaks at a news conference in Chicago. Tesla is forming a special committee to evaluate Musk’s plan to take the company private. The electric car maker said Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018 that the committee will include three independent directors. The committee has yet to receive a formal proposal from Musk on a going private transaction. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)

Mr. Musk’s odd behavior underlines the tensions at play as understated style takes over tech. There is a reason that a big, Jobsian personality was once so prized. Tech companies are leaps of faith. In their early days they exist on the knife edge of oblivion, and it is often only through a founder’s force of personality that investors, employees and the media take any notice. The most beloved founders possess an uncanny genius for selling the world on ideas that look useless, pointless or impossible before we all realize we can never live without them.

For all his flaws, Mr. Musk has long possessed such a genius. All the way back in 2006, he posted a “master plan” for Tesla that reads like a Wile E. Coyote caper: “1) Build sports car. 2) Use that money to build an affordable car. 3) Use that money to build an even more affordable car. While doing above, also provide zero-emission electric power generation options. Don’t tell anyone.”

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos arrives for the memorial service of U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) at the National Cathedral in Washington, U.S., September 1, 2018.      REUTERS/Joshua Roberts © Catalyst Images Amazon founder Jeff Bezos arrives for the memorial service of U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) at the National Cathedral in Washington, U.S., September 1, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Though he has made good on only some of those points — Tesla is now struggling to fulfill orders for the Model 3, the “even more affordable” car in the plan — posting the plan was part of an impish ploy to generate publicity for what looked like an outlandish idea. That ploy worked; ever since, Mr. Musk has leveraged his growing celebrity as if it were a currency.

Every few months, he makes new promises about this or that amazing thing coming soon. Each time, he reaps more attention and financing and, eventually, builds real cars that are sold to real people. In this way, Mr. Musk’s personality became a key element of not just his companies’ brands, but their business models.

Related: Facts you may not know about Jeff Bezos [Photo Services]

But it’s a tricky, high-stakes gamble. For one thing, Mr. Musk has to deliver on his promises. More recently, another problem has eaten at this strategy: The future has been getting less obviously wonderful, so it’s hard to take any tech chief’s assurances that their new thing will indeed be as great for the world as they say.

Back in Mr. Jobs’s day, tech was relatively uncomplicated; when the great man came bearing a new music player, you didn’t have to wonder whether it might help a foreign government steal an election. Now, after everything we have seen recently, you do have to worry about what the future may hold. Even Mr. Musk is worried.

“I tried to convince people to slow down A.I.,” he told Mr. Rogan. “This was futile. I tried for many years. Nobody listened. Nobody listened.”

Thus, the tension: On the one hand, Mr. Musk wants us to believe that everything he’s building is going to turn out wonderfully. On the other hand, he’s telling us to be very scared. This sounds like a contradiction, but in its admission of doubt and complexity, it’s actually a pretty good picture of the future.

No wonder he sounds crazy. No wonder everyone else is going for boring.

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