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Boffin Fallacy

(bofin fal-uh-see)

The misconception Technologists do not understand business - that it’s something they can’t do, won’t enjoy and is beneath them.

Last month, I was invited to deliver the Turing Lecture series in the UK. A four day, four city tour, it’s a unique, high-intensity opportunity to engage in a conversation with technologists (engineers, computer scientists, natural scientists, mathematicians) based all over the country, who work and study at some of the most innovative institutions in the world.

Typically, the lecture is a technical affair, but given my background as a technologist turned entrepreneur I wanted to talk instead about that transition and the challenges those making it face. This topic is particular apropos given the British Government’s focus on innovation-lead business as a key driver for the growth the economy needs to get out of its current predicament.

While I don’t have the space here to recount every experience (my blog has the full write up and you can watch the lecture at the BCS’s website), when I transitioned from CTO to CEO I found, time and time again, that my computer science degree (quantitative, rigorous, analytical) turned out to be the perfect grounding for areas that I thought I was ill-prepared for (marketing, finance, even human resources and sales). I’ll go so far as to make the general case: the increasingly quantitative way business gets done means leadership positions in modern enterprises are better suited to those with a numerate background, whether they self-identify as technologists or businesspeople.

Look beyond the UK and the evidence is plentiful. Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, Sergei Brin, Mark Zuckerberg are all technologists turned business leaders who have built massive, growing companies delivering trillions of dollars in value. Back in Blighty, the list is significantly shorter, with only a few, although admittedly outstanding, exceptions (James Dyson, Warren East and Mike Lynch spring to mind). Why is this? Why do technologists on one side of the pond leap easily into the CEO role while those on our side stay firmly entrenched in R&D departments and engineering teams?

I think the fundamental reason is unrelated to skills or education. I think the problem is mindset. There’s a view in the UK that technologists and engineers are boffins—hapless, technically-minded individuals who aren’t leaders, don’t get business and won’t succeed if they try it out. Just think of Alan Sugar’s comment a couple of years ago that he “never knew an engineer who could turn his hand to business”. You might write that off as a light-entertainment television personality making controversial comments for attention, but when you remember that around that time he’d been the government-appointed ‘Enterprise Champion’, the joke turns sour very quickly.

I believe that in recent history Britain has underestimated science and engineering. Once a highly regarded and gentlemanly pursuit, at some point ignorance of these disciplines became a perverse badge of honor. C.P. Snow probably made this point the best in Two Cultures (a wonderful read - both for the content and as a reminder of a time when great arguments were made over an hour, and not reduced to simplistic, TV-friendly sound bites). I won’t be able to capture the depth or breadth of his arguments here, but to summarize, as a successful author AND chemist and therefore a member of both the literary and scientific classes, he was dismayed by the great divide between the two disciplines and, in particular, how members of the former appeared quick and proud to dismiss any understanding of the latter. But British technologists can’t simply blame others. We have our own disdain for business. Smart kids who study science and engineering in Britain are encouraged to pursue an academic or at least technical career, there’s an insidious implication that there’s something impure or less exalted about commerce and the block and tackle of business. The most damaging property of the Boffin Fallacy is not that the country woefully underestimates and pigeonholes its brightest technologists; it’s that the technologists have heard it so often that they have come to believe it themselves.

Let me end on a positive note. There is no doubt that Britain, with its great education system, has for generations been the birthplace of amazingly talented inventors whose creations have allowed us to punch above our weight in innovation and technology. However, we have failed time and again to help these inventors follow through and create and run the businesses that exploit these inventions. Data shows that these technology/founder CEOs do better than their hired ‘businessperson’ counterparts, so when the Boffin Fallacy gets in the way and stops them from making this leap, we end up limiting the positive commercial, societal and even technological impact of their ingenuity. We end up selling innovation short.