Battle for the soul of Silicon ValleyOctober 8, 2009: 6:00 AM ET
Who rules techland? Increasingly, it isn't the inmates.
That Jane Shaw became nonexecutive chairman of Intel is a big deal, but not because she is Intel's first outsider to chair the board or because she is the first woman.
What makes her role noteworthy is that she is the first non-technologist in that seat. Yes, she has a science background, with a doctorate in physiology and a career in the pharmaceutical industry. But she's not a technologist in the Silicon Valley sense.
Considering that Intel's CEO, Paul Otellini, is the first non-technologist to run the company (see my 2005 profile of him) and that his most likely successor, Sean Maloney, isn't a silicon guy either, it's a remarkable turnabout.
Revenge of the anti-nerds
Now, this isn't a piece about Intel, though it could be. Shaw is perfectly well qualified to be Intel's chairman, having served on the board -- loaded with academics, retired government officials and three corporate types, not one of whom has a commercial semiconductor background -- for 16 years. (She shows up in Brent Schlender's 2004 take on how Andy Grove was trying to re-make Intel's board and himself.)
The point is that Intel's experience represents one of the quietest yet fiercest battles going on across the Valley: the technologists versus the business people.
Time after time I come across people in the Valley who want to talk about this, most of whom are technologists bemoaning their loss of power. Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) hasn't had a gearhead at the helm for years. Yahoo (YHOO) ditched its engineer/founder/CEO who missed key turns in the Internet industry. Google (GOOG), firmly run by engineers, struggles to retain its top business talent because they know they can't move up.
Growing up, or selling out?
The company that seems to be biggest exception is Cisco, (CSCO) where salesman-in-chief John Chambers has skillfully guided the company for years.
Cisco, however, isn't lauded for its innovation. It is known for superior execution, deft acquisitions and a clear understanding of market opportunities -- not the sorts of things that makes the hearts of engineers go pitter-patter.
The charitable explanation for all this is that Silicon Valley is becoming mature. It has grown up into a real industry, not a frontier collection of maverick companies, and its leaders approach their tasks in an industrial fashion.
The less cheerful interpretation is that the glory days are gone, that Silicon Valley is little more than a bunch of careerists and, worse, venture capitalists.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle: Yes, Silicon Valley has become a destination for new MBAs who see the tech biz as a money-making opportunity rather than a passion to pursue. But the Valley will continue to produce interesting new companies - founded by whip-smart engineers and technologists.
If those founders want their companies to evolve into the next Intel, they're probably going to need a few of those spreadsheet jockies to help them get there.