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The Fate of Thought Leadership in the Computer Industry

Originally published September 17, 2009

The computer industry is a new industry compared to other industries. It traces its origins back to 1950 when scientists wanted to create accurate tables for the lobbing of ballistics over long distances. The engineering profession dates back to the walls and streets of Rome which preceded the computer by about 2,500 years. Those walls and streets still exist today. The accountants of Pharaohs recorded how much grain was owed the Pharaohs and placed the bills on the walls of the pyramids in cuneiform about 3,500 years ago. And bones found in caves high in the Chilean Andes indicate that an early form of medicine was practiced as long as 10,000 years ago.

However you measure it, the computer profession is the infant on the block, having been around a measly sixty years or so.

One of the signs of the newness of the computer profession is the existence of gurus, or thought leaders. Older professions have thought leaders, for sure. But thought leadership in the older professions is for marginal or lesser known aspects of those professions.

There are two classes of thought leaders in the computer profession. One class of thought leadership deals with abstract ideas and concepts. This type of thought leader can be named a “pure” thought leader. Another class of thought leadership deals with products. This class of thought leader can be thought of as a “product” thought leader.

The “pure” thought leaders – the ones dealing in concepts – do a wide variety of things. They write books and articles and speak at conferences and conventions. They are almost never happy with the status quo. The “pure” thought leaders have a vision of the world that is different and improved over the way the world of technology is today.

Over the years, some of the “pure” thought leaders in the computer profession have been:

  • John Zachman and the Zachman framework. The Zachman framework is intended to be an architectural foundation for the building and the understanding of information systems.

  • Ted Codd. Ted Codd saw the world in need of a relational foundation. Ted Codd saw the world as a place where existing database management systems were clumsy and inelegant.

  • Ed Yourdon. Yourdon is the original thought leader. In a day and age where computer design consisted of sitting down with a coding pad and scratching out code, Ed Yourdon saw a need for order in design and development practices.

  • Ralph Kimball. The inventor of the dimensional data model and data marts, Ralph Kimball saw that a new database design practice was needed when groups of people that looked at data the same way wanted to look at the data collectively.

  • Larry English. Larry looks at the importance of data quality as a foundation for building well formed and useful information systems.

And there have been many other thought leaders in the industry. Some leaders looked at things grandly. Other leaders looked at things minutely. But they all looked at the world as a place that needed change.

To the product class of thought leader, the world needs products, not concepts. Some of the world’s noteworthy product based thought leaders have been:

  • Bill Gates. Gates had a vision of a world where the personal computer was an active and viable technology.

  • Larry Ellison. Larry Ellison gave the world a technology alternative to the early database management systems, and – with agility – changed the vision of his company to capitalize on the passing fad of the day.

  • Gene Amdahl. Amdahl is the hardware genius who gave the world an alternative to the IBM mainframes in a day and age where mainframes dominated every computing environment.

  • Tom Watson, Jr. Tom Watson Jr. is credited for saying, “I think there is a world marketplace for about 5 computers,” then proving himself wrong by selling tens of thousands of mainframes into every imaginable business – from race track odds calculation to reservations systems to human resources.

It is somewhat interesting to look at the lives of these different kinds of thought leaders. The pure thought leaders make a living by teaching classes, doing odd consulting jobs, speaking at seminars and occasionally writing books. It is not a bad life. But it is not anyone’s idea of getting rich.

Now take a look at the product-based thought leaders. One of them is (or was) the richest man in the world. Another is one of the most flamboyant men in the world and is thought to be the richest single man in the world. Gene Amdahl retired with merit from Amdahl Corporation with more than a few coins in his pocket. (Interestingly, one source says that Dr. Amdahl made far more off of the real estate that he owned than from his eponymous company.) And Tom Watson, Jr. built an organization that today continues based on the momentum that was built years ago.

When one stands back and compares the personal fortunes of the “pure” thought leaders and the product thought leaders, it is no contest. The product thought leaders have far and away grown wealthier than the pure thought leaders.

  • Bill InmonBill Inmon

    Bill is universally recognized as the father of the data warehouse. He has more than 36 years of database technology management experience and data warehouse design expertise. He has published more than 40 books and 1,000 articles on data warehousing and data management, and his books have been translated into nine languages. He is known globally for his data warehouse development seminars and has been a keynote speaker for many major computing associations.

    Editor's Note: More articles, resources and events are available in Bill's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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