The Metamorphosis of Silicon Valley C.E.O.s: From Big to Boring
When Joe Barton, a Republican congressman from Texas, greeted Jack Dorsey at a congressional hearing last week, he sounded flummoxed.
当德克萨斯州共和党众议员乔・巴顿(Joe Barton)在上周的国会听证会上开始向杰克・多尔西(Jack Dorsey)提问时，这位议员听起来有点困惑。
“I don’t know what a Twitter C.E.O. should look like,” Mr. Barton said. “But you don’t look like what a C.E.O. of Twitter should look like.”
The congressman had a point. Mr. Dorsey ― who sported a nose ring, a popped-collar shirt and a craggy Moses beard ― looked more like a hipster version of a Civil War officer than a tech icon. Yet more striking than his look was his manner before skeptical lawmakers.
Faced with tough questions, Mr. Dorsey did not mount an aggressive defense of his company and his technology, as an earlier generation of tech leader might have. Instead, he demurred, conceded mistakes and generally engaged in a nuanced and seemingly heartfelt colloquy on the difficulties of managing tech in a complex world. Even in response to Mr. Barton’s comment about his look, Mr. Dorsey was solicitous. “My mom agrees with you,” he said.
Mr. Dorsey’s testimony prompted questions about what we expect from tech leaders today ― and how thoroughly what we expect has been upturned in the last few years. Since the 1980s, a common leadership archetype has loomed over the tech business: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Sometimes unconsciously and often deliberately, a generation of tech leaders attempted to ape the Apple and Microsoft founders’ charisma, their quirks, their style and above all their irrepressible, hard-charging confidence, to say nothing of arrogance.
多尔西的听证会表现，引发了有关我们如今对科技行业领袖做何期待的问题，以及我们的期待在过去几年里发生了怎样彻底的转变。自20世纪80年代起，科技行业赫然耸现的常见领袖典型是史蒂夫・乔布斯(Steve Jobs)和比尔・盖茨(Bill Gates)。一代科技领导们曾试图模仿苹果和微软创始人的魅力，模仿他们的怪癖、他们的风格，尤其是他们十足的、全力进取的信心，更不用说他们的傲慢。这种模仿有时是无意识的，但通常是故意的。
Mr. Dorsey ― who like the late Mr. Jobs returned to a company he co-founded in order to save it ― has long drawn comparisons to Mr. Jobs. Yet the congressional testimony marked a surprising rhetorical shift. Instead of the black-turtlenecked Mr. Jobs, Mr. Dorsey sounded more like Tim Cook, the understated operations manager who replaced him (and who is holding his umpteenth iPhone event on Wednesday).
That is, Mr. Dorsey sounded less like a quotable visionary who can see beyond the horizon and more like what he actually is and ought to be ― a thoughtful, accessible, transparent and, despite the beard and nose ring, kind of boring manager of a serious company whose decisions have world-changing consequences.
When it comes to tech C.E.O.s, boring is the new black. Under the glare of global scrutiny, the daring, win-at-all-costs ethos that defined so much of the tech industry in the last couple of decades has been undergoing a thorough metamorphosis.
Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook chief who was once the poster boy of breaking things and moving fast, is now sitting with magazine writers for lengthy, nuanced disquisitions on his failings. Last year, Uber replaced its controversy-magnet founder, Travis Kalanick, with Dara Khosrowshahi, whom almost nobody outside the tech industry had heard of before ― a fact that the company regarded as an asset, not a liability.
Facebook首席执行官马克・扎克伯格(Mark Zuckerberg)曾是打破陈规、勇往直前的典型代表，现在他正在与杂志作家们坐下来，对自己的失误进行冗长、细致入微的专题讨论。去年，优步(Uber)撤了经常引发争议的创始人特拉维斯・卡兰尼克(Travis Kalanick)首席执行官职务，用科技行业以外几乎没人听说过的达拉・霍斯劳沙希(Dara Khosrowshahi)取代之，公司把后者的不知名视为一种优点，而非负面的东西。
Google once played up the nerdy antics of its founders, but now the company’s leaders are almost unidentifiable ciphers. Larry Page, who runs Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has become a recluse, and even Sundar Pichai, Google’s achingly pleasant chief, declined to appear at last week’s hearings.
谷歌(Google)曾大肆渲染其创始人的古怪行为，但公司如今的领导者几乎都是毫无特征、无足轻重的人。管理谷歌母公司Alphabet的拉里・佩奇(Larry Page)已变得深居简出，就连很有亲和力的谷歌首席执行官桑达尔・皮查伊(Sundar Pichai)也婉言拒绝了出席上周的听证会。
Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief and the world’s wealthiest man, has been experimenting with a more daring fashion sense, but his leadership style has always been marked by patience and deliberate expansion ― just the sort of boring, operator’s sensibility now in vogue.
Oh, and I almost forgot about Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s C.E.O. In my defense, everyone forgets about Mr. Nadella.
It’s no mystery why tech leaders are turning inward. “Tech is now such a huge and dominant industry,” said Joshua Reeves, the proudly boring founder and chief executive of Gusto, a start-up that makes human resources software. “The fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants mind-set is just not viable when you have a trillion-dollar market capitalization or if you have more influence than many governments around the world.”
Mr. Reeves pointed out that it’s not just the big companies whose chief executives are going beige. Some of the most successful start-ups ― from Lyft to Airbnb to Stripe to Slack to Pinterest ― are run by understated un-visionaries, people who aim for functional competence over hypey salesmanship. (What hasn’t changed is gender; boring or no, just about everyone who runs a tech company is still a man.)
“A start-up that has five million people using it ― that’s small for Silicon Valley, but it’s a tremendous number of people, and so even they have a large amount of responsibility in the world,” Mr. Reeves said.
The tech press has also gotten tougher. Once, novelty alone would merit coverage, but in the social media age, even the tiniest misstep can be ruinous. It has become crucial to get a leader who doesn’t speak out of turn.
There is one obvious exception to my boring-is-in thesis: Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, whose string of unconsidered tweets, taunts and other recent scandals have been anything but eye-glazing.
Mr. Musk’s latest antics were typical. In an email that he considered off the record, Mr. Musk told BuzzFeed News that a diver who had rescued boys trapped in a Thai cave was a “child rapist.” (The diver had questioned Mr. Musk’s off-the-cuff plan to free the boys; Mr. Musk had earlier apologized for calling the diver a pedophile.)
Last week, during an interview with the podcaster Joe Rogan, Mr. Musk smoked marijuana and extensively detailed what he sees as the apocalyptic possibilities of artificial intelligence. The interview ― combined with news of further executive departures ― helped sink Tesla’s stock further.
Mr. Musk’s odd behavior underlines the tensions at play as understated style takes over tech. There is a reason that a big, Jobsian personality was once so prized. Tech companies are leaps of faith. In their early days they exist on the knife edge of oblivion, and it is often only through a founder’s force of personality that investors, employees and the media take any notice. The most beloved founders possess an uncanny genius for selling the world on ideas that look useless, pointless or impossible before we all realize we can never live without them.
For all his flaws, Mr. Musk has long possessed such a genius. All the way back in 2006, he posted a “master plan” for Tesla that reads like a Wile E. Coyote caper: “1) Build sports car. 2) Use that money to build an affordable car. 3) Use that money to build an even more affordable car. While doing above, also provide zero-emission electric power generation options. Don’t tell anyone.”
尽管马斯克有种种缺点，但他一直拥有这样的天分。2006年，他为特斯拉发布了一个“总体规划”，看上去像是威利狼(Wile E. Coyote)的胡闹：“1）制造跑车。2）用这笔钱制造一辆经济实惠的汽车。3）用这笔钱建造一辆更实惠的汽车。与此同时，还要提供零排放的电动车选项。别告诉任何人。”
Though he has made good on only some of those points ― Tesla is now struggling to fulfill orders for the Model 3, the “even more affordable” car in the plan ― posting the plan was part of an impish ploy to generate publicity for what looked like an outlandish idea. That ploy worked; ever since, Mr. Musk has leveraged his growing celebrity as if it were a currency.
Every few months, he makes new promises about this or that amazing thing coming soon. Each time, he reaps more attention and financing and, eventually, builds real cars that are sold to real people. In this way, Mr. Musk’s personality became a key element of not just his companies’ brands, but their business models.
But it’s a tricky, high-stakes gamble. For one thing, Mr. Musk has to deliver on his promises. More recently, another problem has eaten at this strategy: The future has been getting less obviously wonderful, so it’s hard to take any tech chief’s assurances that their new thing will indeed be as great for the world as they say.
Back in Mr. Jobs’s day, tech was relatively uncomplicated; when the great man came bearing a new music player, you didn’t have to wonder whether it might help a foreign government steal an election. Now, after everything we have seen recently, you do have to worry about what the future may hold. Even Mr. Musk is worried.
“I tried to convince people to slow down A.I.,” he told Mr. Rogan. “This was futile. I tried for many years. Nobody listened. Nobody listened.”
Thus, the tension: On the one hand, Mr. Musk wants us to believe that everything he’s building is going to turn out wonderfully. On the other hand, he’s telling us to be very scared. This sounds like a contradiction, but in its admission of doubt and complexity, it’s actually a pretty good picture of the future.
No wonder he sounds crazy. No wonder everyone else is going for boring.