It takes three to tango
I recently read The Innovators by Walter Isaacson – who is also the author of Albert Einstein’s and Steve Jobs’ biography. It’s a fantastic book that sums up the most important innovations of the digital age and the geniuses behind them.
The book starts with the invention of the Analytical Engine, the first mechanical computer designed in 1837 by Charles Babbage. Though the computer was never actually built, it was an inspiration for many computer engineers in the following decades, including Ada Lovelace, who shortly afterwards wrote the first computer program. Isaacson ends his book with Google’s smart algorithm, which at the end of the last century created a much-needed hierarchy and search tool for the quickly growing amount of web pages on the internet.
On different levels the book is a treat; it’s larded with interesting anecdotes and techy knowledge, it extensively explains the processes of innovation and, last but not least, describes the personalities of the innovators in great detail. In this article I will focus on the last quality of the book; the personalities of those who slowly but surely paved the road for a digital revolution.
A constantly reoccurring observation from Isaacson is that the personalities and skills of the greatest digital innovators lived on the intersection of two cultures, the sciences and humanities
The sciences and humanities
A constantly reoccurring observation from Isaacson is that the personalities and skills of the greatest digital innovators lived on the intersection of two cultures, the sciences and humanities. Ada Lovelace, for example, was the daughter of Lord Byron, a poet and leading figure in the Romantic movement, and Anne Isabella Noel, a Mathematician. From her dad she inherited the love for poetry, which nurtured her imagination, and from her mother the love for mathematics, enhancing her analytical thinking power. She called this combination of qualities “poetical science”. It enabled her to imagine a computer that could make music (in 1843 a truly science-fictional prediction) and analytically reason how this could work.
A more contemporary genius of innovation, Steve Jobs, also understood the importance of merging Lovelace’s seemingly contradicting cultures. He personally told Isaacson (when they were working on Jobs’ biography) that early in his career he read something of one of his heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, who explained the importance of people who could stand on the intersection of the sciences and humanities. After reading this, he decided that that was where he wanted to be. And this is exactly what made him unique, being able to merge great engineering with great design, and what helped him to imagine the ‘creative’ computer Lovelace already predicted.
Since people that excel at both the sciences and humanities are the exception rather than the rule, you often see that great inventions are built by a team of different individuals, who work closely together, but have complementary skills and personality traits in the sciences and humanities. Not necessarily literally along the line of these fields, but often along the lines of being imaginative (what could work) and down to earth (what does actually work). Which means you need theoretical thinkers on the one hand and doers/makers on the other.
Successful couples described in the book thus combine theoretical rigour with practical engineering skills. Or an extreme focus on the details of a product with the ability to zoom out and see how a product fits in a certain market. Or a very modest or even shy personality that simple loves to tinker in solitude, combined with a gregarious, confident personality who convinces others in his (yes, unfortunately often male) vision to change the world.
A good example of such a combination is the couple that created the first (electronic and digital) general purpose computer in 1946, ENIAC; the physicist John Mauchly and engineer J. Presper Eckert. Eckert described their qualities as: “a physicist is one who’s concerned with the truth, an engineer is one who’s concerned with getting the job done”.
Since the brain, however is not a binary computer, innovative couples cannot always be simple divided in two more or less opposite individuals
Since the brain, however is not a binary computer, innovative couples cannot always be simple divided in two more or less opposite individuals. Quite often there are 3 or more people who contribute different parts of a product’s success.
The transistor and the microchip
Take one of the most important innovations of the digital age, the transistor, invented in 1947. Isaacson compares it to what the steam engine was for the Industrial Revolution. The reason is that it replaced the sizable, unreliable and expensive vacuum tubes that made the ENIAC (with its 17,468 tubes) a machine that fit in a three-bedroom apartment and weighed 27,000 kilos (60,000 pounds). The much smaller transistors were revolutionary (together with the subsequent invention of the microchip) because thanks to their size, steadiness and price “thousands of ENIACs could be nestled inside the nose cone of rocket ships, in computers that could sit on your lap, (…) and music players that could fit in your pocket” – Isaacson explains.
William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brittain, who together worked at Bell Labs (AT&T’s research center), were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing the transistor. And though all three individuals brought a different quality to the table, there were much more people involved in the entire creative process. An important breeding ground for the transistor was the culture at Bell Labs where theorists, material scientists, experimentalists, industrial chemists, manufacturing specialists and ingenious tinkerers worked together. The inventors could easily draw on each other’s knowledge and spar with each other thus enriching the creative process with many different small, but essential pieces of the puzzle that would eventually create the transistor.
Not just in the creative process of an individual product, but also in a company’s management it’s wise to put personalities and skills together that complement each other. A famous example in Silicon Valley was Intel that was run by 3 CEO’s: Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce and Andy Grove – from left to right in the picture above the article.
When they founded Intel, they fostered a non-hierarchical corporate culture. This created a very horizontal, and relaxed atmosphere that was conducive to creativity and even became an example in Silicon Valley
The company was built on the microchip – or ‘integrated circuit’ – invented by Robert Noyce, in close collaboration with Gordon Moore. Already when still working together at Fairchild Semiconductor the two were opposites that attracted each other: “Noyce was a talkative bundle of energy and Moore was a taciturn yet insightful sounding board” – according to Isaacson. But they also had an important similarity; they had an aversion to hierarchy. So when they founded Intel, they fostered a non-hierarchical corporate culture. This created a very horizontal, relaxed atmosphere that was conducive to creativity and even became an example in Silicon Valley. The downside of this non-hierarchical atmosphere was that the company was not very decisive, which thus created the need for a manager that could more firmly drive Intel’s business. This person was Andy Grove, a “no nonsense man of action“, according to Isaacson. Together with Noyce, who could charm and impress clients, and the modest Gordon Moore, who had an eye for detail, they formed the ideal team.
As said, the transistor and microchip opened up many new markets. In his book Isaacson explains: “one aspect of innovation is inventing new devices; another is inventing popular ways to use these devices“. Pat Haggerty and his company Texas Instruments were good at both. When the transistor was invented he created a market for the pocket radio – a success very similar to that of the Walkman and iPod. And on top of the microchip he built a market around pocket calculators. These are perfect examples of what Steve Jobs would later describe as: ‘people don’t know what they want, until you show it to them’.
So, apart from a great idea and the engineering skills to execute it, you also need entrepreneurship. Or as Isaacson describes it: “the business savvy plus deal-making moxie to turn ideas into successful products“.
With the attitude of a poker player, Gates (aged 25) sold Microsoft’s DOS software non-exclusively and without the source code to IBM in 1980
Bill Gates, who founded Microsoft with Paul Allen, clearly had this deal-making moxie. Much like the other examples in this article, Gates and Allen too balanced each other out; whereas Allen could easily switch between ideas, Gates knew how to focus his attention – sometimes in coding sessions that lasted up to thirty-six hours. Being able to code was not a unique selling point though – after all, at the time it was the new digital language with which many young geeks were experimenting. Instead, one of the keys to Microsoft’s success was Bill Gates closing the right deal. In this context his somewhat nerdy appearance was misleading; Gates had little respect for authority. So, with the attitude of a poker player, Gates (aged 25) sold Microsoft’s DOS software non-exclusively and without the source code to IBM in 1980, thus keeping the rights to further develop the software and sell it to other hardware manufacturers. Isaacson about this deal: “Their 1980 revenues were $7.5 million, compared to IBM’s $30 billion, but Gates was gunning for an agreement that would allow Microsoft to keep ownership of an operating system that IBM would turn into a global standard.” Bill Gates not just understood that software would become more important than hardware, he also made the right deal to rule this market for decades to come.
Later Gates ‘stole’ the unique selling point of Apple’s new Macintosh; its graphic user interface (a desktop metaphor, with windows, icons and pull-down menus, to be operated by a mouse), which became a major leap in making computers ‘personal’. When Windows launched in 1983 and revealed its user interface – just before Apple’s Macintosh – Jobs was furious. Gates was not impressed though; he simply told Jobs that Apple stole it first – indeed Jobs copied it from Xerox PARC.
Jobs’ most important qualities were his groundbreaking vision and the ability to get others to do things for him
Steve Jobs was also known for having little respect for authority. Unlike Gates Jobs was not an engineer, but this didn’t matter cause his other start-up half, Steve Wozniak, was. As Isaacson describes it: “Wozniak would come up with some clever feat of engineering, and Jobs would find a way to polish and package it and sell it at a premium“. Jobs’ most important qualities were his groundbreaking vision and the ability to get others to do things for him. These two traits combined, famously equipped him with a “reality distortion field”, meaning that if he believed that the seemingly impossible was possible, he made it happen.
Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari in 1972 and uniquely combined vision, engineering skills and entrepreneurship, was Steve Jobs’ boss for a while in Atari’s early years. Bushnell told Jobs: “if you act like you can do something, then it will work. (…) Pretend to be completely in control and people will assume that you are.” This seems to have planted a seed within Jobs that he nurtured for the rest of his life.
The most important part of Jobs’ genius was in his somewhat egocentric nature. Jobs, however, also understood that innovation often was an evolutionary process that required a mix of diverse talent collaborating closely together. That’s why he – just as Bell Labs and Intel – also nurtured a creative culture within his companies where talent and collaboration were key factors.
Another company greatly admired for its creative culture is Google. Google is yet another example of innovative company founded by opposite personalities; Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Just like Steve Wozniak Larry Page was not a very social animal. As Isaacson puts it: “he could make eye contact with a screen more easily than with a stranger“. Sergey Brin however could be “charmingly brash“. On another level they also complemented each other: “Brin was satisfied knowing that something worked, Page would ruminate about why it worked“.
When Page and Brin were asked if the fact that their parents were professors was a key to their success they said that the Montessori schools they attended when young was a more important factor
Obviously they were both quite intelligent, but they also gave credit to their environment. When Page and Brin were asked if the fact that their parents were professors was a key to their success they said that the Montessori schools they attended when young was a more important factor. Page: “I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, and being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world and doing things a little bit differently”. If you look at Google’s culture today it’s no coincidence that its employees get so much freedom to be creative.
Another factor was the fact that Page was accepted at Stanford – and rejected by MIT. According to Isaacson this was fortuitous since Stanford is a university that stands on the intersection of technology and business, and thus allows research with real-world grounding. The Silicon Valley based university even actively supports its students’ business ideas, which is why companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Yahoo! and Sun Microsystems all have their roots at Stanford. About Stanford Page later said: “It’s not just theoretical. You want what you’re working on to apply to a real problem”. So even though most people don’t know what they want until they see it, inventions at least need to solve a real world problem.
It’s a good summary of how the successful teams of innovation discussed in this article were successful together; they all had the intelligence and imagination to come up with ideas that could change the world, but at the same time they were sufficiently in touch with this world to make them happen. The latter, thanks to a combination of engineering skills to transform these ideas into real world solutions and the business skills to create a financially healthy market around them. In short, imagination, engineering skills and business acumen are the three essential ingredients that have built our digital age – and will built all the industrial revolutions to come.
Photo: Intel’s three CEO’s with complementary qualities: Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce and Andy Grove.