Friday, July 23, 2010

The CEO Archetypes #5 Sheldon Cooper

"And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo
And Bring Back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo
A Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!"   
Dr. Seuss   

Dr. Seuss invented the word "nerd" in 1950 to entertain and educate the baby-boomers.   

And some of those boomers became the nerds who have invented the modern world in which we live.     
                                                                    
Sheldon Cooper, a nerd.
It seems fitting that it all relates to a book called "If I Ran the Zoo!"

I have worked with or met quite a few of this type:  Barry James Folsom, Eric Schmidt, Bror Saxberg, Bill Hughson, Kai Li, Chip Hughes, Abhay Parekh, Rich West, Howard Lee, Scott Cook, Matt Korn.   Bill Raduchel is a variation on this theme, but as in all things in Bill's life he puts his own spin on Sheldonhood.  Bill Joy is the quintessential Sheldon...however, even though I worked at Sun for 10 years, I could not say I worked with Joy. 

Venture money started moving these big brained boys from academia to entrepreneurship in the 1970's.  Once these socially awkward, intellectually superior guys discovered the attraction founder stock has over tenure and grant money, a renaissance of invention was born.  Thanks, God.


The Sheldon has been the smartest guy in the room his whole life.  He doesn't remember ever really struggling in school, except perhaps on the playground.  Sheldons are beyond arrogant.  Really, how can you be arrogant when you have empirical proof that you are as good as you think you are?  And it is not that they think they are superior...the Sheldon doesn't think about you much at all.  There is just too much other stuff happening in their noggins for them to give other people much thought.

Sheldon's are logic driven.  They think in syllogisms. They argue as if they were Steven Toulmin.  They understand what "the real question" is in almost all discussions.   They all seem to have great passion for their interests and treat anything outside their interests with diogenic indifference.

These rare birds love the complex problems, but they are great at distilling the complex into the comprehensible for us mere mortals.  They love gadgets, science fiction, and a wide variety of music (I have known Sheldons that only liked classical, some who loved jazz, quite a few are taken with Punjabi hip-hop, a boat load of hard-rockers, one parrot-headed Buffet fan and a couple of guys who only listened to country). 

Sheldons are often founding CEO's.  They might be the most socially comfortable member of a whole group of Sheldons that start up a company.  Or they might be the most visionary of their start-up team.  They are the sine qua non of their enterprises. 

These guys are focused on technology, invention and breaking glass.  They do not innovate...they invent.  They have little interest in applying new dosing technology to someone else's drug, they want to invent something that did not exist before.  They want to bend light, create new markets, stop time, travel at c, dominate at WOW and if they make a gazillion dollars along the way, great.  I have never met one who did not understand money.

The Sheldons attract other Sheldons to work around them.  They spend a lot of time in their own heads and their early organizations are quiet places.

I once walked into a start-up client founded by 5 Sheldons.  As I came in they were all sitting in the lobby...looking at the floor.  "What's up, Campers?" I greeted them.  One looked up at me and said, "We are thinking about what we will do if Partha has bird flu."  And he went back to silently looking at the floor.  They all did.  Including Partha, who had looked up at me briefly from under a surgical mask, lifted his eyebrows and then returned his attention to the carpet.  I knew these guys well enough not to launch into chatter.  So, I sat down in the lobby and waited for them.  They remained silently staring at the floor for another 11 minutes, then Raj said, "We will just have to rearrange the production schedule.  If Partha has this virus, it will run it's course in 10 to 12 days, barring any complications like pneumonia, we can design around him for those days and when he is well again he will have to make up the design time."  They all agreed and then turned their attention to me.  There was no worry about Partha's health...this was about the design schedule. 

I have watched groups of Sheldons stare at a diagram or a problem on a whiteboard for hours at a time.  Silently.  Each doing the hard work of thinking through the problem in their own head.  That is what Sheldons do best.  Think.  They work hard, they program at light speed, they can work days at a time on a problem with no sleep and even fewer baths (except the OCD Sheldon's... and there are a subset of those).  But what they do best is think about the hard problems.  They spend their time quietly thinking about the algorithms that make our thoughts, words, pictures and money move around the world in a blink.  They have invented the technology that documents, transports, compresses, stores, protects and retrieves the information, entertainment and education of modern life.   It is from their silent thinking that the over-communicative world we live in was born.

These are the Thomas Edison's of our time.  These are the inventors and visionaries.  They impact our daily lives more than Wall Street or Washington DC.  These wacky guys who could not get a date to their Junior Prom.

My experience with the Sheldons is that they make hiring decisions very carefully and then are extremely generous and appreciative of their employees.  They take great pride in affiliation with their hand chosen colleagues.  They are collaborative.  They respect the input of their team on many things.  They build cultures where technologists thrive and marketing and sales types chafe. 

Not many survive as CEO for very long.  (Eric Schmidt is an exception.  And frankly a few of my old friends at Sun would argue with me for loading him into this archetype as he has always been perceived as more manager than inventor.)  Most of these pointy headed geniuses cry uncle pretty early and beg to have someone take over the management, financing and revenue generation in the company, so they can go back to the poetry of invention.  It is not a failure.  It is a courageous triumph when one of these guys says, "Enough!" and asks his board to help him find a McNealy or a Fuller or a Reyes to take over the pilot's seat.

I love these quirky CEO's.  It is such a blast to get to work with one.  It is a riot to participate in the adventure of invention and you can only get to ride that E-ticket attraction if you buddy up to a Sheldon.

OK.  Next up, The Atticus Finch.

1 comment:

  1. I miss the Sheldons at Sun! I've only worked with a few since moving to Oregon.

    ReplyDelete