One rule in the technology industry is often forgotten: If you have a team of superstars, it will likely be dysfunctional and fail spectacularly. The scheduled December 14th meeting between tech CEOs and the Trump transition team has the earmarks of a train wreck, largely because of the egos involved. There are exceptions, like Larry Page and Peter Thiel, who have proven that they can prioritize progress over egos, political geniuses like Safra Catz and Sheryl Sandberg, and transition CEOs like Brian Krzanich and Chuck Robbins, who are focused on making massive changes in their own firms. Then we have Jeff Bezos, who has been at war with Trump, and Eric Schmidt, who actually was photographed with a staff badge for Hillary Clinton during the election and who drove a relatively unhealthy relationship between Google and President Obama for some time. A more complete list of attendees of the tech meeting is here, including IBM’s Ginni Rometty and Apple’s Tim Cook.
With this collection of skillsets, the Trump administration could do something amazing or end up at war with tech. Given that the industry, with the exception of Thiel, was all pretty much in Clinton’s camp, the latter is a distinct possibility. And working against a positive outcome is the open letter to the world signed this summer by a huge cross-section of tech leaders designed to push the election to Clinton.
Why Firms Shouldn’t Get Involved in Elections
I have a firm belief that that public companies shouldn’t take sides in elections, and the reasons for this will likely be highlighted during this meeting. Trump had a similar meeting with media company leaders and he pretty much unloaded on them for most of the session, which I’m not sure did anyone any real good. For firms, many of which have Trump’s companies as clients, this could be even more painful because there is nothing like speaking out against someone who is paying you if you want to deeply and personally piss that person off.
Meg Whitman and HPE probably stand out even higher than Google as the tech CEO and firm most likely to be uniquely singled out, suggesting a title for her post-CEO book, “Don’t Do What I Did.” If she showed up at the meeting, Trump might go all “Game of Thrones” on her. Fortunately, I don’t see her on the invitation list.
Anyone who signed that letter and is going to this meeting should be prepared for a dressing down that will likely go public the following day. Worse, if this doesn’t go well, it could result in a wide gamut of actions against the industry.
There is no upside to picking sides in any political process for a sitting CEO, as that will certainly upset a large number of investors and customers regardless of the outcome. If the side chosen loses, the outcome could be dire for the firm, or in this case, the industry.
Steve Jobs largely set the bar here. Whether it was philanthropy or politics, he felt his customers and investors should make those decisions for themselves and these areas weren’t part of his mission. His mission was to build and sell great products and he was CEO of the Decade last decade.
Power Players: Peter Thiel, Safra Catz
As I mentioned, some power players have shown unusual competence in difficult situations. Thiel seemed to get very early that Trump had something and, unlike tech folks who supported Clinton, his talks have been on how to best apply tech, not on disparaging candidates or politics. That shows that he has a clear idea not only of where his skills actually are but where they are not.
Catz is another tech leader to watch as she has been not only one of the most powerful women in tech but one of the few who isn’t defined by mistakes. Extremely competent and focused, she is often credited with Oracle’s success and knowing just when and how to apply her power and influence to best effect.
These two executives alone could make the difference between whether this meeting is only a dressing down or if it results in needed improvements to how the country is defended and managed, both of which should have a higher priority than they currently do, at least with regard to tech utilization.
Wrapping Up: The Big Lesson in Tech
Tech is the one thing that should provide the U.S. with a sustained advantage, yet it is rarely used by the government to proper effect. Even though Clinton had the support of the industry, Thiel alone had a far more positive impact on Trump, both in terms of election results and in focus. If Thiel and Catz, both of whom have unique advantages, can collaborate on the outcome of the tech meeting, it could be massively positive for the industry and country and far better than just a dressing down like the media industry got. Yes, it is a long shot, but the tech industry is defined by little companies that grew to dominate the world, and that’s the very definition of a long shot. In short, no industry could do this better and it is in all our best interests that they do.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+