The Tragic Triumph Of The MBAs

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Gillmor Gang 9.3.11 (TCTV)

“We’ve seen Mubarak fall,” said Salesforce’s Marc Benioff of the corporate need to focus on social networks at the recent Dreamforce conference. “We’ve seen Khadafy fall. When will the first CEO fall for the same reason?” What a fantastic comparison! Because, as we all know, dictators who brutalize, torture, and murder thousands of their own people over a period of decades are just like CEOs who miss quarterly profit targets.

Benioff isn’t a bad guy, it was just a dumb thing to say — but it’s stuck in my mind, because Salesforce, cloud-computing’s poster child, is the future, and his seems to be the voice of the zeitgeist. This feels a little like the end of an era. While I have issues with Apple’s hegemonic approach, during his career Steve Jobs repeatedly changed our sense of what was possible, and the world, by making genuinely revolutionary products. Now he’s gone. Meanwhile, Google has spent the summer laying waste to vast swathes of its product line. Google Labs, its experimental playground? Dead. Slide, bought last year for $182 million? Dead. Aardvark, bought last year for $50 million? Dead. A whole grab bag of other products and services? Dead.

And it seems that whatever survives the ongoing Mountain View bloodbath will be thoroughly monetized. Massive price hikes are on the horizon for Google’s (terrific) App Engine platform. Russell Beattie of PlusFeed reports that he’s shutting down his service because otherwise his server costs would increase by a factor of thirty. I use App Engine for my own open-source-travel-guide pet project, and my costs will apparently increase fiftyfold. (OK, that’s from a penny a day, but still.) The new pricing model is a lot like that of Salesforce’s Heroku platform. Hmmm.

Is this the right thing for Google to do? From a business perspective, hell yes. They need more focus, fewer projects, and less bureaucracy. But at the same time, they’re shutting down and/or discouraging independent and experimental projects to focus on me-too projects like Google Plus and Google Offers. Isn’t Google supposed to be a company that innovates and changes the world with its superior algorithms and scalability, rather than one that plays catch-up for the sake of profits?

Nope. That was then, this is now. With Jobs’s departure and Page’s new focus, it seems that Apple and Google are no longer primarily in the business of changing people’s lives; instead, they’re in the business of business. Marc Benioff, the voice of the zeitgeist, doesn’t actually seem to see any difference between the two.

I suspect this is pretty common among CEOs and MBAs — but most techies don’t agree at all. To us, successful businesses are a necessary means for the promulgation of revolutionary technology, not an end in and of themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge champion of free-market capitalism, and all great businesses do change the world; but there’s a big difference between doing so by intent and letting it happen as a side effect.

A famous essay from the first dot-com bust refers to what it was like for a co-founder to watch venture capitalists and MBAs take over the management of his tech company: “Like watching a group of nursery school children who’ve stolen a Boeing 747 and are now flipping all the switches trying to get it to take off.” I think I speak for many techies when I say we found that soothing, as well as funny. It reassured us that tech was different, that the suits would never be able to take over what we did and why we did it. But I’m sorry to say, it seems to me now that we underestimated them.

Image credit: Paul G, Flickr.