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Why Tech CEOs Seem So Dumb

Most of them aren't visionaries! They're just middle-aged rich dudes. Tech CEOs are like the opposite of power users.

Posted on May 14, 2012, at 4:03 p.m. ET

LEON NEAL / Getty Images

Stephen Elop, CEO of Nokia, and Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft

Have you ever met a 50-something rich business guy? That's who runs most tech companies. They are not like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg — they are not visionary founders with IDEAS and DREAMS. They're wealthy businessmen who wear boxy expensive suits and go to meetings for a living and maybe have a few kids, too. They know less about their products than most of their employees do, and might not even use them. They are not nerds or power users. They're the exact opposite.

If they do use their companies' products, they use them differently from you and me. (Remember: rich dudes!) It's not surprising at all to hear that the head of Time Warner Cable doesn't know what an Apple TV is:

[T]he current Apple TV, the little thing, the hockey puck, really doesn’t do anything to help enable you to get Internet material on your TV.

I mean yes, this sounds extremely dumb — "getting Internet material on your TV" is the entire point of the Apple TV, and Apple isn't Roku or Boxee, it's the largest company in the world. But it makes sense, too. This guy probably barely even watches cable! He makes $10 million a year, has a busy schedule and better things to do, and besides, he's the kind of guy that buys extravagant $20,000 home entertainment systems to use once a month, not $100 set-top boxes to use every day.

His job is to make sure that Time Warner Cable keeps making tons of money the way it has been for a long time. For the next few years, at least, that has very little to do with knowing what an Apple TV is. By the time it does — and it will, in a devastating way — he'll be ready to retire. He's 62. Someone else will be captain when the ship finally hits that iceberg. (Don't worry, he'll get a lifeboat. Made out of money.)

This, basically, is why you end up with one of the former CEOs of Research in Motion, makers of the BlackBerry, saying this about his laughably terrible tablet:

I mean, you saw the Playbook; it's effortless graphics, it's fully real-time. This operating system is already AL4 Plus-certified, it's SEAL3-certified.

Just a couple years after saying this about the iPhone:

Try typing a web key on a touchscreen on an Apple iPhone, that's a real challenge. You cannot see what you type.

Or how you end up with the CEO of Microsoft saying this about a site that most of his customers use every single day:

Google’s not a real company.

Then saying this:

View this video on YouTube

Or how the CEO of Nintendo can say this in 2004:

Customers do not want online games.

Or how HP's head in Europe ends up saying something like this:

in the PC world, with fewer ways of differentiating HP's products from our competitors, we became number one; in the tablet world we're going to become better than number one. We call it number one plus

Being wildly successful in tech is about anticipating change, and altering the status quo; being the 14th chief executive of a stodgy old major tech company is about extracting as much value as you can from the success it's already had. The CEOs of the Time Warners and Sonys and Yahoos and RIMs and even Microsofts of the world are experts only on their respective companies' existing businesses. They say things that sound stupid to us because they're not us, and because their goal for tech (to maximize profits at their companies) is not the same as ours (to get more awesome stuff that makes our lives better). They're not even really talking to us. They're talking to their boards.

And, again, I can't stress this enough: In virtually every way, these people live on another planet. Unless they go faarrr out of their way, they'll never understand how normal people use tech, and what we want from it. This, by the way, isn't unique to tech — executive tunnel vision can happen in any industry. But tech is about user experience in a way that energy or finance isn't. Plenty of tech users are also passionate tech experts. Not so with crude oil or life insurance.

Just because this isn't unusual doesn't mean it's fine, obviously. Any company is much better off with a Jobs than with a Lazaridis. But next time you're SHOCKED at a tech CEO saying something that sounds stupid or ignorant, remember: at a lot of tech companies, a CEO's job isn't to change or even understand your world, it's to maintain theirs.