Top ten biggest egos in technology

This week, we count down some of the biggest egos in the IT business - the larger than life personalities that dominate IT.
Computer geeks aren't really like other people. We dream more of benchmarks and gadgets than red carpets and paparazzi.

That doesn't mean, however, that the tech world is without its rock stars. Intel likes to joke about it, but there really are larger than life characters whose imposing presences rival that of any ego this side of Howard Hughes.

Honourable mention: Woz

Iain Thomson: I've got real doubts about this one but Shaun insisted.

As my co-worker pointed out Woz seldom turns down an interview, always has a pithy quote and is usually pretty free with his personal appearances. His 'Dancing with the Stars' episode proved that.

But my big disagreement comes in the fact that while Woz may have an ego he has the skills to back it up. The guy is a genius when it comes to engineering and computers. A man who writes out an operating system longhand and then makes it work – well I take my hat off to him.

Shaun Nichols: As I will point out multiple times on this list, having a big ego doesn't mean you're a bad guy. The geek-crush we have on Woz has been well-documented. But that doesn't mean he can't go on this list.

The public loves Woz and, let's face it, Woz loves the public. He never turns down an interview or a chance to go on TV and give his opinion on Apple or anything else in the tech world. Maybe it's because Woz is an incredibly nice guy who just loves helping people out, or maybe it's because, like nearly everyone else on the planet, he likes getting attention and feeling important.

And Iain, genius skills and massive ego usually go hand in hand. When someone has prodigious skills and no ego behind them, there's usually a mental disorder involved.

Honourable mention: Dan Lyons

Shaun Nichols: How do you pin a huge ego on a guy who spent the better part of a year trying to hide his identity?

Yes, Dan Lyons did spend most of his time as Fake Steve Jobs trying to remain anonymous, but when the spotlight came he most certainly did not shy away from it. The formerly unknown Forbes editor was unmasked as the brilliant mind behind the satirical Apple blog and then leapt wholeheartedly into the world of geek fame. Book deals, a move to Newsweek and even a speaking engagement at Google were some of the perks Lyons gladly soaked up.

This isn't to rag too much on El Jobso Fake-o. The man has a family to take care of and the journalism profession isn't exactly a gold mine these days. Most of us would have milked such an opportunity for all it was worth as well.

Namaste, Dan. I honour the place where our list and your fifteen minutes of fame become one.

Iain Thomson: Yes but, journos with egos are never a good mix.

As journalists we're supposed to be impartial, unless we're let off the leash for an article like this. That said I have a soft spot for Lyons. The fake Steve Jobs blog was so funny and on the ball that I think he's due the plaudits.

The question remains what he will do with this fame. I'm hoping he'll reap the plaudits and then go back to journalism. If he takes the star route we'll see how big his ego really is.

10. Carol Bartz

Iain Thomson: Well she's certainly got ego, I just wonder if she's got what it takes to back it up.

Carol Bartz comes to Yahoo at a bad time for the company. Yahoo is floundering in a technological minefield. It doesn't know what it is and it's hoping Bartz will show the way.

I've got real respect for Bartz. She beat breast cancer while carrying on working, she drops the F bomb regularly – which is catnip for journalists – and she's a smart woman in a field of male mediocrity.

Bartz has the balls to take Yahoo and remake it (although I suspect some sell outs in the future of the company's core assets). She's the right person for the job, but can she make Yahoo a force again after its egregiously bad management before. I hope so, but we'll wait and see.

Shaun Nichols: Often, one man's (or woman's) chutzpah is another man's giant ego. Carol Bartz has in her short time at Yahoo managed to generate plenty of headlines and industry buzz for the force with which she has taken control of Yahoo.

Walking onto a stage your first day on the job and threatening to "dropkick to f***ing Mars" those who defy you is a pretty good indication that one has a fairly high opinion of one's own abilities. At this point though, a strong corporate leader with a healthy ego could be just the sort of kick in the pants that Yahoo needs to pull itself back up in the market.

9. Jerry Yang

Shaun Nichols: Hopefully Jerry Yang will prove a cautionary tale for all the young geeks who strike it big in the business world. Just because you have a great product doesn't necessarily mean you will be a great businessman.

Yang was half of the team of Stanford students that launched Yahoo. When the company began to really get huge, however, he took off. And rightfully so- while an astute computing and engineering mind, Yang lacked the years of experience one needs to run a multi-billion dollar enterprise.

When Yahoo started to sputter in 2007, Yang came back as chief executive to head up the company in what turned out to be an awful decision by Yahoo. Fed by his own ego and the fierce loyalty of the long-time "Yahoos" in management, Yang made a series of mistakes headlined by a refusal to take a generous acquisition offer from Microsoft. With company stock hovering at a fraction of the Microsoft offer, cooler business heads prevailed and Yang was ultimately forced to step down.

Iain Thomson: Yang is a case in point of why innovators seldom make good leaders.

The people behind an idea generally don't have the skills to run the enterprise their skills create. They are blue sky thinkers, who get bored easily by the day to day nitty gritty of running a company.

Yang's appointment seemed like a good idea for Yahoo. After years of disastrous leadership he was a popular choice internally and obviously knew the business. But he was too emotionally involved with the company and one suspects he began to identify too closely with it.

So when Microsoft made a good offer for Yahoo Yang's ego seems to have got in the way of making the best deal for his shareholders. He turned down a good offer and in less than a year his company was worth half of what Microsoft had been willing to spend.

8. Bill Gates

Iain Thomson: Big Bill at number eight – are you on crack I hear you ask. No, it's an honest score.

Gates has evolved from the nerd who knew he could change the world. Yes, in the early days of Microsoft he had an ego the size of Jupiter but he's calmed down since then. He seems to know now that he's not the smartest guy in the room automatically – it's a wisdom that comes to us all with age.

Bill has learned that he's not always right. He's got plenty of experience to show it – Windows ME and Vista, Bob, anti-competition rulings and the plundering of his software by malware writers has tempered him somehow.

That being said he's still got form as the police would say. He ranted at Paul Allen for taking time out to witness the historic launch of the first space shuttle, he whined at Davos about how ungrateful consumers were and he still can't seem to get his head around the concept that people don't need to be grateful for his genius.

Shaun Nichols: I'm of the mindset that one doesn't succeed in sports, politics or high-level business without possessing the sort of self-confidence that comes with a massive ego.

Bill Gates would not have made it too far with Microsoft had he not honestly believed that he was the baddest geek ever to take control of a software vendor. The sheer gall he displayed time and time again in his business dealings show just what sort of an ego was driving Microsoft to the top.

As Iain pointed out, Gates has recast himself as a far more humble and friendly individual in recent years. Well, humble and friendly for a mega-billionaire. I don't think any of us will see Bill pull up a stool at the local pub and talk football with the boys any time soon.

7. Nicholas Negroponte

Shaun Nichols: Even those with the most noble of intentions can get a big head. Negroponte is a well-respected chair of the MIT media lab and head of the most ambitious charitable effort the industry has ever undertaken.

When the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) effort was first announced, Negroponte's name brought some much-needed media attention to the project and only furthered his own image.

While OLPC is still going strong in its effort to put technology in the hands of impoverished children, one can argue that Negroponte's own ego has brought on conflicts with companies such as Intel and Microsoft who would have only helped the project.

Again, this isn't to badmouth OLPC and its admirable mission, but even the best of intentions can still inflate one's ego.

Iain Thomson: I've got a lot of time for Negroponte if truth be told. He had a great idea with OLPC but failed to see that the rest of the industry wouldn't necessarily bow down and kiss his ring.

What Negroponte did do was spark interest in low cost PCs. Without the OLPC idea it is highly unlikely that Intel would have come up with its Classmate PC range. After all, it wasn't seen as being in the company's interest to build low cost systems when there was so much profit in the high cost ones.

But Negroponte's ego wouldn't let him see that. Instead he ranted and raved at Intel for its duplicitous behaviour. He couldn't see that it was just business as usual in the tech world.

6. Marc Benioff

Iain Thomson: If Steve Jobs leads the Scientologists of the IT industry then Benioff is the Bhagwan of SaaS. He's not quite driving Rolls Royces past his followers but he's not far off it.

It's always slightly disturbing going to a Salesforce press conference. Every employee seems to believe with the passionate intensity that Benioff espouses in the future of SaaS. They may well be right, but the cultishness makes me nervous.

Benioff took on a software industry model and destroyed it – you only have to looks at yesterday's embarrassing climb-down by SAP to see that. But he has too much of a messiah complex for my liking. Yes, everyone likes to be proved right but they don't have to be so damn smug about it.

Shaun Nichols: Marc Benioff was a corporate protege of Larry Ellison at Oracle, and boy does it show. From the permanent tan to the stylish suit without a tie and confident swagger, Benioff is like a double-sized clone of Ellison, Larry's 'Mega Me,' if you will.

But I think that in Benioff's case this sort of ego is an absolute necessity. When started, Benioff was essentially telling prospective customers that they should abandon much of their exisitng IT infrastructure and instead remotely access important business tools with the same application you use to watch dancing cat videos. SaaS would never have succeeded had its main salesman been a quiet, reserved little waif.

5. Mark Zuckerberg

Shaun Nichols: At an age where most of us were watching bootlegged episodes of the Simpsons and building pyramids from empty beer cans, Mark Zuckerberg was making himself a billionaire as the head of Facebook. Can you really blame the kid if he has a big head?

Zuckerberg's ability to sell his company and audience on his product and vision has been likened to some of the older generation of entrepreneurs; a 21st-century Steve Jobs in a fleece pull-over and sandals.

Zuckerberg's youthful arrogance has also made him the target for criticism when his company messes up. When Facebook launched its controversial Beacon programme, Zuckerberg took much of the heat. Later, when the company's terms and conditions drew the wrath of users, Zuckerberg again had to take shots from those who accused him of being too aloof and out of touch with what users really want.

Iain Thomson: Zuckerberg is a classic case of too much too young. Facebook was the media darling for a year and I think he began to believe his own press coverage.

It must have been hard to maintain a level head under the circumstances. If you're barely out of your teens, not exactly a looker and suddenly the world is beating a path to your door it's going to give you ego problems.

The Beacon example was a case in point. He seemed to think that users wouldn't mind sharing their buying habits, since they were sharing everything else on Facebook. He blustered and fumed and then had to back down. It has taught him some humility, but not much.

4. Carly Fiorina

Iain Thomson: Carly Fiorina came into one of the most male dominated organisations in Silicon Valley and changed it - sadly not for the better I feel.

I remember first seeing her speak. My goodness, it was a brilliant performance. She took a floor of hostile HP geeks and enthused them to such an extent that she got a standing ovation at the end and, I'm willing to bet, haunted the dreams of more than a few of them.

But Fiorina became obsessed with making her mark, and the HP/Compaq merger was the result. She took one great company and one OK one and merged them, destroying both in the process. While HP may now be the number one in the PC industry the company has lost its soul and it now stands pre-eminent in an industry that's dying by degrees.

Instead of trying to be the biggest she should have focused on being the best. HP missed a crucial opportunity to lead the pack in the field of laptops - the short term future of computing. Her domineering attitude alienated some of the best tech minds in the company and she was left with a hollow victory and so many enemies that she was forced out and is now reduced to a career trying to get into politics. Given the mistakes she made in John McCain's campaign I'm not holding out too much hope there.

Shaun Nichols: Carly Fiorina's failings are numerous and well-documented, from the Compaq merger to the boardroom spying cases, she made her share of mistakes.

But she also deserves major credit for her perseverance in an industry that was and still is in many areas horribly male-dominated. Fiorina not only took control at a high level of business that is absolutely dominated by hot-shot business types with huge egos, she did so with the handicap of corporate sexism pushing back against her. This would indicate that Fiorina herself carried around an ego that put the boys to shame.

It will be interesting to see how she does in her career as a politician. If Fiorina thought that pushing a multi-billion dollar merger through a Silicon Valley boardroom was dirty work, wait until she sees what a California Senate election is like.

3. Steve Ballmer

Shaun Nichols: Steve Ballmer is seen by many as the Darth Vader of the technology business, a role he seems to be very content with.

Every time the cameras are rolling, Ballmer seems determined to do something memorable. The Microsoft chief executive doesn't suffer from insanity on the stage, he enjoys every minute of it. Whether his infamous 'on your feet' dance or his memorable 'developers' tirade, Steve Ballmer does not have any problem with doing things to get people talking.

Every great drama needs a bad guy, and Steve Ballmer has been more than happy to take the role. So long as his company continues to make money and generate headlines, Ballmer should be thrilled to play the villain.

Iain Thomson: Ballmer is first and foremost a salesmen, and you need a big ego to survive in that trade.

However Ballmer's ego seems large even by the standards of his profession. He seems to think that sheer force of will will get him what he wants. There have been reports of his style, which includes breaking office furniture and screaming in the face of his employees, that speak of a big ego.

But what makes it worse is the Microsoft kool aid. Microserfs are a strange bunch, pathologically loyal in the most part and convinced they work for the best company in the world. Add that to Ballmer's ego and you've a killer combination.

2. Larry Ellison

Iain Thomson: Given my druthers I would have put Ellison at the number one spot, but Shaun's arguments won out.

Ellison has an ego the size of Texas, and he doesn't care who knows it. He's the highest paid tech chief executive in the industry, and you know he justifies it to himself by the repeated assurances that he's simply the best person out there.

In fact Ellison got where he is by having a good idea and then using every means possible to make sure he got to the top. Whether it be in flying or business he holds the attitude that rules are something that happens to other people and by money and force of will he's proved it to be true.

He strikes me as a person who wants to bend the world to his rules, and will do anything to make it so. To some that's an admirable quality. Personally I think it speaks of deeper problems below the surface.

Shaun Nichols: If I could have a beer with any Silicon Valley legend, it would be Woz. But if I could fly out to Vegas for the weekend with any Silicon Valley legend, Larry Ellison would be the guy. He's the sort of guy that obviously knows where to get the best of everything and how to enjoy it to the fullest. Outside of Paul Allen, I can't think of any other figure in IT who has been so successful while still keeping a healthy work/leisure balance in his life.

He's also a hell of a businessman. While Microsoft, Apple and Google get more publicity, no company has succeeded more spectacularly for a longer period of time than Oracle. Ellison obviously hit the market at the absolute perfect time, but he also did a great job of managing the company, staying focused on core products and not making the mistake of trying to do too much too soon.

1. Steve Jobs

Shaun Nichols: If there was any debate over who would be at the top of this week's list, it was over in about five seconds. How do you not recognise an ego so powerful it can distort reality?

Jobs is very good at what he does, and he most certainly knows it. While the engineers and developers get their due, you know that virtually every release from Apple, be it a new iPod or just a TV ad, has Steve Jobs fingerprints all over it.

To have this level of control over a company, one also has to have supreme confidence in his own abilities. Those who have worked with Jobs will attest to his ability to slam anything he doesn't believe in and tirelessly sell his own ideas to others. Reporters who spoke with Jobs back in the 80s when he still gave interviews say that he was constantly asking what was being said about him, both good and bad.

Perhaps the greatest contradiction about Jobs is just how fiercely he guards his private life.

While fellow business icons Richard Branson, Larry Ellison and Mark Cuban make their leisure pursuits public business, the rest of the world would be very hard pressed to know just what Jobs does when he leaves the office. No other person in the business is as visible within his company and invisible outside of it as Steve Jobs.

Iain Thomson: Silicon Valley historian Robert Cringely has a theory about Steve Jobs that he got from a senior Apple executive. Jobs is an orphan the theory goes, and he's convinced that if he makes a big enough noise his real parents will come back and admit they were wrong to give him up.

I've got some doubts about this. I think Jobs is the classic egotist, who feels that he knows what is right and the rest of the world should just shut up and let him get on with it. The rest of the world on the other hand disagrees.

He's thrown his toys out of the pram on more than one occasion and shows a sense of spite that would shame an eight year old. On the other hand he's made Apple into a powerhouse in the computing world. Maybe Shaun is right, with great ability comes great ego.


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