Green Team 12

In today’s startup crazed world, there are a multitude of ongoing debates regarding the ideal recipe for success. One of the most controversial topics is whether a technical background is essential for the CEO of a company. The Newton Lecture Series provided us with a wide range of speakers who touched upon the extent to which having a technical background was necessary. To be specific, Michael Seibel and Forrest Iandola spoke about their experiences and their thoughts on the topic. After considering the different lectures and other resources, we concluded that while having a technical background is remarkably beneficial for being a founder, it is certainly not a mandatory prerequisite.

According to Michael Seibel, CEO of Y Combinator, his first criterion for determining the success of a company is the technical background of the founders. His reasoning is that the value in a product or idea comes directly from the technical knowledge on how to develop and execute it (code, algorithms, product/industry knowledge). He argues that it is easier for an engineer to learn the business skills necessary to make a company successful than it is for a business co-founder to learn the technical skills required to develop the product. A co-founder with a technical background is better able to understand development, research, functionality, and limitations of their product, allowing them to make better decisions about the company functions necessary to make the product a success.

Forrest Iandola is the co-founder and CEO of his startup, DeepScale. It is a startup that helps automakers use industry standard low wattage processors to power more accurate perception with self-driving cars. Forrest Iandola obtained his PhD from UC Berkeley working on deep neural nets and computer vision systems. While working on his first startup he intended to use machine learning algorithms to identify products in videos and attach targeted ads for those specific products. Forrest was able to combine his knowledge from academia and combine it with a commercial application for his startup idea. After completing his PhD at Berkeley, Forrest then started his new venture DeepScale continuing his work on deep learning with the commercial application of self-driving cars. Forrest was able to convince his professor from Berkeley to join his company to continue working on efficient deep learning algorithms for self-driving cars. Forrest would have never had created his company had it not been for his extensive technical background in computer science and its applications in machine/deep learning. There are certain pain points that are experienced in industry that can only be solved with the technical knowhow of someone who personally experienced those pains, such as those pains that Forrest felt when working with inefficient deep learning algorithms.

It may seem like one absolutely needs a technical background to make it big as a founder. But that is not entirely correct. Trends from the tech industry show that most entrepreneurs start their tech companies with a thorough know-how of the subject, and the ones who make it big are backed by technical experience. However, that does not mean that there aren’t people who start ventures in the tech space without a technical background. These people enjoy success, but that is only transitory. In the domain of technology, a tech firm leader without a sound technical background is a rarity. However, if one looks beyond that domain, there are countless examples of successful people who made it big even without a college degree. People like Alan Gerry, Kirk Kerkorian, and Carl Lindner Jr. dropped out of high school and went on to become billionaires. Billionaires like Harold Hamm, Haim Saban, Jay Z, John Paul DeJoria, and David Green never went to college. Even without a technical degree these people were able to dominate industries like oil and gas, airlines and hotels, retail and entertainment. Although none of the people mentioned above had a formal college education, they were bursting with passion. It was their extreme desire to achieve, commitment and hard-work that helped them become kingpins in their industries. The biggest strengths were their motivation, their networking power and their ability to make other believe in them. Their success as founders were due to their mastery of soft skills and practical intelligence. They work a lot on themselves: self-education, self-reflection, and self-reliance becomes an everyday thing. They learn to unlock the all knowledge and information available around them, outside classrooms. These are the traits that all the other multi-millionaires from all around the world show. Every country has a lot multi-millionaires who start their venture without a technical background and become successful. These people are not anomalies; if one just considers developing countries, there are a large number of entrepreneurs with just a high school diploma and a will to thrive who go one to become successful founders.

Ikhlaq Sidhu, Founding Director & Chief Scientist at the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, having started 4 companies, over 60 patents, developer of the technology used in Skype and the developer of Data-X would perhaps be one of the best people to talk to when it comes to entrepreneurship and technology. If one was to get an opportunity to sit in his class (IEOR 135, Applied Data Science with Venture Applications) one would hear the words he spoke in his session in the Li Ka Shing Auditorium several times: that entrepreneurs having a certain personality makes them stand out. He often talks about charisma, confidence, ability to think differently, and most importantly the ability to ‘make use of codes.’ According to him, one can spend a whole semester over regression, tensor flow, neural nets and other geeky stuff, however to start a successful company all you need is one class on the ‘geeky’ topic and learn to manipulate, incorporate and work with the ‘important’ parts of the language. He often talks about the aforementioned topics and also topics like natural language processing and tree algorithms for as long as a lecture (focusing only on the necessary parts). According to him, it definitely is beneficial to have a technical background, but even if one doesn’t, the world is equipped enough to assist. And of course, a real entrepreneur would know how to get people to get him past technical issues.

The SCET-sponsored Technology Firm Leadership class had the privilege of hearing from guest speaker Dr. Pamela Park. Dr. Park is a Co-Founder of The Brookbridge Group and currently serves as Principal for ghSMART, a management consulting company. Dr. Park is responsible for advising CEOs, board of directors, and a variety of investors on their most challenging leadership issues. The research comprised of 17,000 in-depth interviews of company executives to determine what truly distinguishes a successful CEO/Founder from the rest. They discovered that self-identifying introverts generally do better than extroverts. According to Dr. Park only 7% of CEOs are from Ivy League institutions. These findings are rather surprising, but what proved to be most informative from their interviews was four key traits that differentiate good CEOs from great CEOs. The most successful CEOs are skillfully able to: decide with speed, relate with impact, reliably deliver, and adapt proactively. Whether CEOs make the right or wrong decision, their ability to move quickly with conviction demonstrated they were twelve times more likely to succeed. CEOs that adapt proactively are ready to move forward with adroitness. It is notable that none of these traits are “technical” or mandate any such background in technology. This extensive study conducted by ghSMART reveals that a technical background is not a prerequisite to be a successful CEO or business leader.

After exploring different perspectives on whether a technical background is crucial to a CEO and their company’s success, it is clear there is not one true path to success. Although there are common character traits that successful leaders share, there are multiple ways to find success that are not dependent on having a founder with a technical background. Having a founder with a technical background can be very beneficial for certain companies and situations, but there are many intangible and immeasurable qualities in a person that differentiate good CEOs from great CEOs.