Technology and Education: Finding the Next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates

By Rob Enderle October 06, 2011

I was reading an in depth interview of Peter Thiel by Declan McCullagh.   It’s worth reading if you care about the future of the technology in the world and the related success, or lack of it, in the US. For instance, he argues that investing in Green Tech is stupid, and backs this up by pointing to investments by one of the richest guys in the world.  

Thiel co-founded PayPal (News - Alert), is a one of the active billionaires and has some rather interesting views of the technology world; he also runs one of the more interesting hedge funds (interesting to note that, while it lost tons of money, his predictions were largely true, though he missed on the timing). One program he has is to give $100,000 grants to inventors to get them to drop out of college and invent.   Back in May, he announced the first 24 winners and clearly the idea of giving grants to kids to drop out of college appears counterintuitive. But if Bill Gates (News - Alert) hadn’t dropped out of college, we’d likely not have a Microsoft and Steve Jobs (News - Alert) never finished college either.   

Let’s explore the idea of why some kids likely shouldn’t go to college.

Education

College -- and I have three degrees myself -- is great for most people. It teaches you not only what does work but what doesn’t.   The folks that teach in college are often those who didn’t make it in business, haven’t worked in business for a really long time, or have always been educators.   This tends to give them a somewhat dated and particularly conservative view of what can be done with emphasis on coloring inside the lines.  

At the end of 2/4/6/12 etc. years in college, graduates have been inundated with rules, many of which are either outdated or never were true, and, as they make it through the next few years they will be surprised at how little of what they learned can actually be applied.   With the job market the way it is, only the top tier will likely get the jobs they worked so hard to qualify for and many likely will get to that top tier by gaming the education system.   That last point might be considered creativity misapplied because those same skills may make their companies less successful as gaming businesses often lands you into trouble.  

This isn’t to belittle the education system; it’s only to say that creativity isn’t something that is often nurtured in engineering or business schools and that the most creative students may either learn to apply that creativity wrongly or learn to follow rules they might have been better off avoiding.  

Invention

A good deal of successful inventions seem to come from folks who have both the fire to work incredible hours and don’t yet know what they are trying to do can’t be done and so they do it.    That window seems to be between high school and family obligations which tend to make wage earners risk averse.   We’ll call this window the late teens early 20s when most of us seem to have that combination of incredible energy and foolishness to spend on trying to do impossible things.   

Thiel’s big idea appears to be to try to find the top tier of kids who have an idea that could be something incredible and have the core skills (or ability to hire them) needed to make that idea a reality. He is trying to fund the next Apple/Microsoft (News - Alert) but, more than that, he is trying to find a mechanism to supercharge invention and create more viable big ideas that are the result of non-conventional thinking.  

In the end, however, he points to what is likely a critical oversight in the current education system. This alternative path would be one that identifies inventors and innovators early and puts them on a path that encourages and immediately mines that inherent skill to speed up innovation rather than forcing a less viable path.  

In other words rather than spending $100K on college with little chance of coming out with a job that would justify that expense, spend it on making ideas real, with a greater possibility that something amazing could result.   Granted, the odds of this outcome are low, but given the job market, they may be far better and have more upside than the traditional path.  

Wrapping Up: Finding the Next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs

We talk about innovation and how so few companies that were created from it can now demonstrate that innovation. Often, I wonder if that is because the very folks that founded these firms, people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, wouldn’t even get an interview at the firms they created, based solely on their educational background.   It often seems like the firms, rather than trying to find and nurture leadership similar to what made them great, go out of their way to assure that those leaders form competing companies or end up in other industries.  

In the end, Peter Thiel certainly has identified a problem and has an interesting solution for it. However, that solution doesn’t fix the problem for existing firms who might be wise to spend some time thinking about how they might go about finding the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates before higher education turned them into something else.   Something to think about this week. 


Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group. To read more of his articles on TechZone360, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Rich Steeves

President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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