Want to run a successful high-tech company? Don't drop out of college.
The myth of the brilliant Ivy League student who starts a business in his dorm room, drops out of school, and goes on to run a successful high-tech start-up for many decades to come is essentially just that: a myth. Despite a few high-profile exceptions - such as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates - the vast majority of CEOs running successful U.S. high -tech firms have college degrees, and more than half have at least one graduate degree.
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We analyzed the educational backgrounds of the 50 highest paid and most powerful CEOs in the U.S. tech industry, and what we found is that only three of them -- Michael Dell of Dell Computers, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, and Larry Ellison at Oracle - are college dropouts. And, of course, their success is the result of founding their own companies as opposed to being hired by a board of directors to run an existing tech firm.
"I've met as many successful tech CEOs who have dropped out college as I've met folks who have won the lottery," says Professor Jerry Luftman, managing director of the Global Institute for IT Management, who holds doctorate in Information Systems from Stevens Institute of Technology. "There are always going to be exceptions to any rule. But if you are a betting person, you would increase your odds of becoming a tech executive if you have a college education and a senior executive if you have a management degree."
Jeff Hocking, senior client partner at executive recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International, says he doubts Zuckerberg would even get an interview for a CEO job at another tech company.
"There are a few people like Bill Gates who were college dropouts and were founders of successful tech companies, but none of these people came into the CEO role from somewhere else," Hocking says. "I have placed a few non-CEOs without degrees, but they have had 20 to 30 years of a successful career. It would be very difficult for me to encourage my son, who is a freshman in college, to drop out and start a company."
Of the 50 top high-tech CEOs, 27 completed not only an undergraduate degree in computer science, engineering or business, but also hold a master's degree in one of these fields. Seven of these CEOs completed two post-graduate degrees. Three high-tech CEOs hold PhDs, while one is a lawyer.
Indeed, it appears that the motto for aspiring high-tech CEOs should be: the more formal education, the better.
Consider the example of Dan Hesse, CEO and president of Sprint Nextel. Not only does he hold a bachelor's degree in government and international studies from Notre Dame University and a master's in business administration (MBA) from Cornell University, he also holds a master's degree from the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he won the Brooks Thesis Prize for writing the outstanding master's thesis.
Another highly educated CEO is Paul Jacobs, CEO and chairman at Qualcomm, who holds three degrees from the University of California at Berkeley College of Engineering: a bachelor's, master's and a PhD, all in electrical engineering. Jacobs subsequently won the Berkeley Engineering Innovation Award in 2008, and he endowed a professorship at the school. In terms of his field of study, Jacobs followed in the footsteps of his father, Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs, who also holds a bachelor degree from Cornell University in electrical engineering, along with master's and doctorate degrees in the same field from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Similarly, Dominc Orr, president and CEO of Aruba Networks, holds not only an undergraduate degree in physics but also two graduate degrees in the sciences -- a master's degrees in physics and a doctorate in biology -- from California Institute of Technology, where he was named a Distinguished Alumni in 2010.
Jacobs and Orr are unusual because few tech companies want to hire PhDs as CEOs, Hocking says. "Tech companies constantly look down on PhDs," Hocking says. "You'd think there might be more PhDs in tech CEO roles like there are in biotech or medical devices, but you rarely see them in tech companies. Seventy to 80% of the tech CEOs we place have engineering degrees with an MBA...That's the sweet spot."
The only lawyer on the list of tech industry CEOs is John Chambers, president and CEO of Cisco, who holds both a law degree and a bachelor's degree in business from West Virginia University as well as an MBA in finance and management from Indiana University.
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While studying law is a rare path to the executive office at a tech firm, the more traditional field of study is computer science or related engineering or scientific fields.
Of our sample of 50 CEOs, 17 have undergraduate degrees in computer science, computer engineering or electrical engineering. Another six have undergraduate degrees in other types of engineering, while three have mathematics degrees and three have degrees in physics. More than 10% of high-tech CEOs continued on as graduate students in computer-related fields, with six holding master's degrees in either computer science or electrical engineering.
Another popular path to a high-tech CEO job is to study business in college, with 15 of the 50 high-tech CEOs holding undergraduate degrees in economics, finance, accounting or business administration. Additionally, more than a third - 19 out of 50 - have master's degrees in business administration or management.
"If you're starting off with technical responsibilities, obviously you need a technical base," Luftman says. "But we know, because we have done enough research over the years, that a technical education isn't enough for any career, whether it's at a vendor or user company. You need the right balance of technical, business, management and interpersonal skills to be a successful executive."
There are a few mavericks on the list who pursued non-technical degrees as undergraduates. Paul Sagan, president and CEO of Akamai, graduated from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and was a TV reporter before migrating into the cable broadband business. Similarly, Ross Levinsohn, interim CEO at Yahoo, has a journalistic background with a major in communications from American University and a career focused on digital media.
While Sagan and Levinsohn studied journalism as undergraduates, Broadcom CEO Scott McGregor chose a more unconventional major while a co-ed at Stanford University: psychology. However, McGregor burnished his techie credentials by earning a master's degree in computer science and computer engineering, also at Stanford.
With more than half of the high-tech CEOs holding an undergraduate degree in computer science, engineering or math, perhaps that explains the pressure that former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson must have felt to falsify his technical credentials. Thompson resigned in May because his resume falsely claimed he had earned a computer science degree from Stonehill College, when in fact his major was accounting.
"CEOs need the right combination of skills however they acquire it," Luftman says. "The predictable way of acquiring it is through a balanced formal education, a technical undergrad degree and a master's degree in business or management. There are other ways to acquire it, but they aren't quite as easy."
Hocking says that while tech CEO candidates need to have a formal university education - preferably an engineering degree and an MBA - the topic comes up rarely in CEO interviews as long as the credentials are legitimate.
"The issue is: What have you done with that degree in the last 30 years? That's much more important,'' Hocking says. "Let's face it: Harvard and Stanford and Yale open up plenty of doors when you are younger, and that says a lot because you can jump over people who have to start at B or C companies or at a much lower level. But it really is an even playing field by the time you get to a CEO interview."
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