The Most Powerful Person in Tech

There are generally two paths for dealing with someone in power when disagreements arise. One is to confront, and the other is to understand and influence. What is interesting is the most common path taken is the former while the most successful is the latter. I think the reason is that the former path is both the natural path for disagreement and the most visible. Confrontation is always more newsworthy than influence.

When done right, exerting influence has the odd result of not conveying credit while actually making far more progress. This suggests that one of the ways to determine whether someone is doing something because they believe in the outcome vs. doing it for fame and status is whether they move to influence or to confront.

The vast majority of tech executives and politicians confronted Trump, which had little impact on him, while Peter Thiel moved to influence. As a result, he now may be the most powerful person in tech, even though that didn’t appear to be his goal.

I’ll share some thoughts about that this week and close with my last product of the week, which has to be Varonis. It is the one product that could have prevented virtually all of the high-profile breaches that crippled both Yahoo and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Confrontation and BackstabbingOne of the most common ways decisions are made in the tech industry is that the most outspoken and disagreeable person at the table wins, and the person who is better founded but isn’t as focused on the status of winning often loses. I call this the “biggest assh*le at the table method,” but there is a more technical term for this: argumentative theory. I’ve reviewed a lot of failed companies, and at the heart of most failures seems to be this process.

There is a second process that is equally common, in tech firms in particular, and it has a common name that I’ll paraphrase because I can’t use the actual name in mixed company. It is “kiss you screw you.” This occurs after everyone at the table agrees, and then a bunch go out and do everything they can to cause the idea to fail in order to screw the poor person who is trying to execute.

If you’ve ever wondered why a lot of good ideas fail, it is largely because some group of folks inside companies secretly move to cause them to fail. Personally, I think people should be fired for doing that, but they often are rewarded instead, which suggests there are a lot of managers on the wrong side of this practice.

I personally think the Obama administration was defined by both practices. The Republicans largely practiced the “biggest assh*le at the table” method and were obstructionist, while the Democrats seemed to agree but acted against the president behind the scenes, which is why efforts like Obamacare were such a train wreck.

 

Collaboration and Influence

Compare the way much of the tech industry supported Clinton vs. how Peter Thiel supported Trump. Clinton got money and vocal support, and Thiel provided technical advice and focus. He advised and kept tightly to tech topics like cybersecurity, which are critical to the well being of the country. Clinton’s massive support from the industry largely consisted of money, because most thought she was an idiot. That was thanks largely to the email thing, but I’ve seen notes going back years, suggesting that was hardly a new perception.

The right path for Clinton’s supporters would have been to fix the “idiot” thing. Yet there is no evidence it was even attempted. Thiel, in contrast, worked to make Trump smarter, and the result was not only better execution in the final days of the campaign, but also last week’s tech meeting, which focused on making tech companies more profitable.

Contrast this with Eric Schmidt’s relationship with President Obama, which became an embarrassment for the president and didn’t seem to result in anything but an unusual protection against antitrust charges for Google. As a result, it’s arguable that tech actually appears weaker at the end of Obama’s term than it did at the beginning. If the current trend holds, that shouldn’t be the case with Trump, but that outcome will depend largely on Thiel’s relationship with Trump.

Thiel vs. Gawker

Peter Thiel spent $10M taking out Gawker, which scared a lot of folks because it silenced a voice in media. Personally, I thought Gawker was an abomination — largely because it focused on disclosing personal information about powerful people or celebrities, doing them harm for money.

Gawker had its roots in tech, and a tech service that monetizes hurting people tarnishes the entire industry and is counter to efforts that are working to eliminate bad behavior, like bullying, by making it appear like you can bully anyone. By the way, this doesn’t mean that I agree with some of the behavior that Gawker called out — I just don’t think it is in the tech industry’s best interest to validate the hostile use of personal information, given the critical need to protect everyone’s individual privacy.

I’m kind of surprised more tech CEOs haven’t backed Thiel’s efforts, largely because having a “secret mistress” is an extremely common perk of the job. My guess is that most believe they are careful and that their clandestine relationships won’t be reported. Sadly, many aren’t as good at keeping this stuff secret as they think. Had Gawker not been killed, many of those delusional executives likely would have had some explaining to do to their wives, kids, employees, stockholders and boards. Such things rarely go well, so Thiel did them one hell of a favor that most may never appreciate fully.