Silicon Insider: Tech's New Humility

Is modesty the newest competitive strategy for hotshot tech companies?

It's been said the last bit of one-upsmanship is humility -- that anybody can be triumphant in victory, but it takes really clever arrogance to be humble about your success. But staying low-key may also be a very smart way to keep your shareholders' expectations low, your competitors off-balance and the Justice Department out of your hair.

Humility is not what you would call a historically defining trait of Silicon Valley and the rest of high tech. On the contrary, almost from day one, tech has been the land of braggadocio, pomposity and hyperbole.

A century ago, both Edison and Tesla thought themselves Gods of Electricity. In the 1920s, Lee deForest, inventor of the (triode) vacuum tube, married a showgirl, moved to Hollywood and started writing editorials decrying how the entertainment industry had sullied his magnificent invention -- radio.

Michael S. Malone's new book, "Bill & Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World's Greatest Company," has just been published and is available at major retailers.

And who can forget transistor co-inventor William Shockley and his call for a "genius" sperm bank to save mankind -- for which, of course, he would be a founding, er, depositor?

Watson, HP Give Way to Fairchild

The next generation of high tech heroes -- Watson, Hewlett and Packard, the Varian Brothers -- were noticeably more low-key, which may help account for their enduring fame. Though there was one eccentric maniac in the bunch: Alexander Poniatoff of Ampex.

But this polite group begat the most talented, outrageous and swaggering generation in tech history. The 'Fairchildren,' the 20-somethings who first built Fairchild, then the semiconductor industry, then Silicon Valley -- as well as their less insane but equally arrogant counterparts at Motorola -- set the standard for swagger that subsequent tech generations have struggled to match. And the fact that most of them became obscenely rich only seemed to prove that a loud mouth and thick wallet went hand-in-hand.

The '70s generation was a bit of a dud, but the 'grandchildren' of the Fairchildren proved more than up to the task. The gamers, led by Nolan Bushnell at Atari, the personal computer gang, with the singular Steve Jobs, and the codewriters, dominated by Bill Gates, managed to be cocky, outrageous and (in the case of the last two) both nasty and surpassingly weird. And, of course, they became among the most famous (and most successful) figures of their generation -- and their style and attitude became embedded into the DNA of every subsequent high tech entrepreneur.

All of this reached a zenith with the dot-commers. Young, smart and (initially) rewarded way beyond either their achievements or their competence, this generation of hip techies had arrogance to burn.

Many early dot-commers became tycoons in a matter of months in their first real jobs, and could only look down on all of those poor suckers and wage earners who had slaved for years just to make the down payment on a house.

I remember ridiculing on the pages of Forbes ASAP the pomposity of one of these overnight paper billionaires -- only to have him write a letter to the editor in which he complained that no one could appreciate how hard he'd worked for those 24 months to make his fortune.

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