Stop worshipping CEOs – tech is a team sport

Mark Zuckerberg at a House of Representatives hearing

Forgive me for feeling smug, but the troubles hitting the technology industry have vindicated my cynical, grumpy opinions. I’ve long doubted the business sense, and decency, of Jeff Bezos, questioned the genius of Elon Musk, mocked Mark Zuckerberg’s abilities and cast doubt on the practical utility of cryptocurrencies.

So the chaos that’s slammed into the tech industry – including a wave of layoffs – after its lucrative money-spinning during the pandemic has me patting myself on the back so hard I’ve hurt myself.

The ‘brightest’ tech leaders are struggling

Bezos may be ridiculously rich, but the division making Amazon Alexa and the home-surveilling gadgets associated with the voice assistant, are losing $10 billion this year, sparking job losses. No wonder he quit as CEO – the company hasn’t had a true hardware hit since the Kindle, and I don’t even know where mine is anymore. Bezos is much richer than I’ll ever be, but I can sleep well at night knowing I was right about Alexa.

Elon Musk should be congratulated for making electric cars palatable to people who strongly identify with internal combustion engines, but Tesla is hit with lawsuits on everything from Autopilot mode to HR violations. Then there’s the whole Twitter debacle. I hesitate to even write about it because something even more ridiculous happens with each passing week. Suffice it to say, it’s clear Musk’s management style isn’t helping the situation, and the shine is wearing off his apparent genius.

Mark Zuckerberg has long been derided by many, and I’ve been incorrectly predicting for years the Facebook founder would be forced to step down as CEO of Meta, as it’s known. Somehow he’s managed to hang on, though his position is looking ever more precarious, as Meta’s gamble on the metaverse has so far failed.

Then there’s all the future tech. Driverless cars? Tesla is being investigated for claiming its cars have higher levels of autonomy than they clearly do. Hyperloop? Still doesn’t exist, with SpaceX reusing its test tunnel for parking and Virgin Hyperloop pivoting from passengers to cargo. Cryptocurrencies? You only need to look to the FTX debacle, in which tech wunderkind Sam Bankman-Fried was revealed to not understand the basics of accounting, thereby losing his customers billions when his cryptocurrency exchange collapsed. None of these struggles means such technologies are impossible, but they’re heavy blows.

They’re also a big boost to my smugness levels. It’s clear that making billions out of technology doesn’t mean you’re a genius, but bold and lucky with your one very good idea. It’s also clear that we should really stop putting these individual men on such pedestals, as they’re only going to trip up and fall off, as any single person would.

Workers, not CEOs, are keeping tech giants afloat

Indeed, while I’m full of warm soft fuzzy self-congratulatory gratification, it’s tinged with pity and empathy for the people working for these tech leaders, including friends of mine who have lost work over their CEO’s foolish moves. All those job cuts hit particularly hard during a cost of living crisis. It’s those people – the coders, the software engineers, the delivery drivers and so on – who make these companies so successful.

Amazon would collapse into a pile of useless cardboard without its army of warehouse workers and drivers, the very same people bullied by management into urinating into bottles to avoid messing up clearly-too-tight schedules. Bezos has promised to give away his immense fortune; he should start with the workers who made Amazon possible, be it those laid off from artificial intelligence (AI) work on Alexa to those still shuffling boxes around.

Musk has been undoubtedly clever with Tesla and SpaceX, but he wouldn’t have a car or rockets without the thousands of engineers and developers working for both companies. The argument is that they’re replaceable and he’s not, but consider Twitter: Musk believes he doesn’t need teams focused on moderation, human rights or machine learning ethics, but was forced to hire some back after he realised what they actually do is necessary to the site. Indeed, it’s arguable that Musk is a better founder than he is CEO, and should step back from his other companies the way the Google co-founders did – faced with legal concerns, Tesla might benefit from a less distracted leader.

The same follows for Facebook with Zuckerberg: it’s long past time for him to take a back seat, and I don’t just say that so my annual prediction that he’ll step down finally comes true. At least Zuck can feel good knowing his tenure was longer than SBF, whose company imploded under poor management after winning venture capital funds that he gained while playing a video game during his pitch.

If I seem like I’m kicking these CEOs when they’re down, don’t worry: being powerful billionaires will probably help them survive my damning appraisal of their genius. But we need to stop being so in awe of these men. They deserve plaudits when they’re doing good work, and criticism when they’re not, the same as any of us because, when their genius does fail, they’re held up – and their companies held together – by a tech industry full of talent. Tech is a team sport, whether you’re a billionaire or not.