It’s not easy to find the most inspired executives who possess a unique mix of talent, drive, energy, leadership–on top of a steely conviction about their technology vision.
Don’t get us wrong: The technology industry is filled with lots of executive talent at all ranks and is populated by some of the sharpest minds on the planet.
But what about the ones who manage to break away from this very competitive pack and make a difference in the industry and our lives?
This helps explain why we created the InternetNews.com annual Vision Awards list, starting with CEOs at technology companies big and small. We set out to study who is impacting the industry on the strength of a clear vision–and who is executing on that vision.
What went into our choices? Plenty of arguments, for starters. We looked at a wide swath of criteria: stock prices of the public companies involved, their performance in the year time frame, how much the companies are advancing innovation with information technology that enables greater strength in businesses and in how we live our lives.
What kind of difference did their moves make? How did their accomplishments influence and otherwise touch our lives? Should company size matter? What types of innovations mattered the most?
Of all these considerations, how and why they made that vision happen carried the most weight.
With this in mind, the editors of InternetNews.com and of Jupitermedia’s online division salute the InternetNews.com Visionary CEOs of 2008, presented in alphabetical order.
We would like to thank you, our readers, for sending in some of the hundreds of names and accomplishments the editors studied in compiling this list. With so much talent in the industry, this was no easy task.
We look forward to keeping an eye on next year’s winners. And, of course, we look forward to hearing from you.
(In alphabetical order)
Marc Benioff, Salesforce.com
Back when he was an up-and-coming executive within Oracle’s (NASDAQ: ORCL) ranks, Marc Benioff had a cushy deal. Appointed a corporate vice president while still in his 20s, he could have been content to be one of CEO Larry Ellison’s foot soldiers, pushing database software, making good money and enjoying solid job security.
Benioff left his job as senior vice president at Oracle in 1999 to create Salesforce.com (NYSE: CRM), with $2 million as a parting present from Ellison to start the company that would promote the crazy notion that people would want their software as, well, a service they get online.
In doing so, he saw the ubiquity of the Internet becoming a reality, and that was vital to Salesforce.com’s success. Electricity is useless without power plugs; Salesforce.com’s on-demand customer resource management (CRM) software is useless without the Internet everywhere. In 1999, that build-out was still going on. Today, it’s being realized.
But he and the company still have problems to address, such as embarrassing outages that call the whole SaaS model into question. After all, what good is an online application when it’s not available? But it was what Salesforce.com continued to do in the last year that also stood out.
Take the strategic buy to add more gusto to the services it sells with last month’s $31.5 million acquisition of multichannel knowledge applications vendor InStranet.
It put together deals with Oracle for iPhone applications and moved closer to Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) with its partnership on applications, keeping tongues wagging over whether a sale could be in the
Jeff Bezos, Amazon
Bezos proved to be an argument-filled selection. Some think the launch of the e-book reader Kindle is vision in action, while others saw it as another dud in a string of e-book reader duds in the marketplace. He still got points for overseeing the launch and helping to advance e-books in general, not to mention digital versions of its bread-and-butter selling books of the printed variety.
What really made a difference with editors arguing for this choice is the work Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) has done in the last year to woo hearts and minds with its cloud computing and EC2 offerings.
The larger story here is that Amazon is getting more serious about its cloud computing services — probably based on a pretty solid uptake on the EC2 beta so far. It keeps EC2 in the same conversations as hosted applications, software as a service (SaaS), Web services and how software is increasingly sold: like a utility you pay for on a meter. He’s well aware of that the next big thing is now “Platforms as a service.”
Amazon is basically building out more cred by saying to potential customers: Applications will be well cared for here. But in addition, it’s a move that will eventually get merchants to deploy Web services behind the scenes — applications talking to each other on orders and other logistics stuff that puts Web services to work behind the scenes for a company that makes the bulk of its bread and butter selling books and gadgets in the physical world.
This is in addition to the launch of a music store that is actually giving the seemingly invincible iTunes a run for its money. Bezos is often criticized for doing little more than starting up the “Wal-mart of the Web.” But in the past year, he has been steering Amazon into categories that deploy its enviable contextual shopping platform into something bigger on the Amazon EC platform.
The timing on Web services with the latest on EC2 just adds one more piece to the computing cloud at Amazon, and one more reason he made this list.
John Chambers, Cisco
Quarter after quarter, John Chambers delivers on the promise of innovation. He’s got the mix of vision and ability to execute. That also speaks of a strong senior management team in place at the networking giant.
Chambers oversees a company that delivered new technology and strategic acquisitions that help differentiate Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO) in its networking category. He’s also keeping an eye on the bottom line. During a tough year in the overall markets, Cisco has so far delivered solid financial results to shareholders.
Chambers began the year by rolling out an ambitious new switching platform, the Nexus. The Nexus is a visionary approach to meeting the demand of the next generation of datacenters that will run converged networks and will scale to 100GbE
At a time when many in the technology industry assume that commodity silicon and microprocessors are the way to go, Chambers sunk $250 million into a new routing platform. The Cisco Nexus, which debuted in March is powered by Cisco’s own Quantum Flow processor.
Chambers also embarked on a new Linux strategy in April 2008. The Cisco Application eXtension Platform (AXP) plugs in the Cisco’s ISR platform, which has already shipped 4 million units, to provide users with a Linux application server.
Looking forward, Chambers already has his sights set on the largest questions facing the Internet today, namely speed and capacity. Under the executive leadership of Chambers, Cisco in 2008 expanded the reach of its 40G offering and continues to test out 100GbE solutions.
Across every sector that Cisco reaches, John Chambers leads it on its brisk pace of evolution with his vision that the Network is the Platform.
Larry Ellison, Oracle
Larry Ellison? No question, he was a controversial pick that had the editors here getting ready to rumble. Joking aside, we feel Ellison deserves inclusion because of the key decisions he has made with his brain trust in steering the database giant not just into the future, but carving new territory in technology with the 11G platform.
Ellison is on this list because he leads a company that remains at the cutting edge of enterprise IT software technology–and spending. Ellison is legendary in the technology industry as a Samurai CEO with a penchant for acquiring companies that don’t want to be acquired, at least by Oracle.
It is the vision behind the acquisitions that led Oracle to dominate markets and push the technology envelope forward. In 2008, for example, Ellison completed the acquisition of BEA (a visionary company at one time in its own right) for $8.5 billion.
Oracle is already rolling out new technology based on the BEA acquisition, realizing the benefits of Ellison’s vision. With the acquisition, Oracle now competes on a more head to head level with IBM (NYSE: IBM) in the middleware market and has an even stronger position in the overall enterprise software marketplace.
This year also saw Ellison’s vision execute on virtualization with Oracle VM templates as well as the continuing growth of Oracle’s Linux business. All this from a company whose name is synonymous with its namesake database. Did we mention that Oracle still dominates the database business, too?
That kind of business execution doesn’t happen on its own. It happens only with skilled and visionary leadership.
Jen-Hsun Huang, nVidia
nVidia co-founder Jen-Hsun Huang was born in Taiwan and raised in Thailand, but when he came to America he was inadvertently sent to a Christian boarding school in eastern Kentucky, near the Appalachian Mountains. His well-meaning uncle and aunt had recently emigrated to the U.S. and spoke little English and didn’t realize what type of school it was.
Scarred for life? Hardly. Huang told Wired he remembers that part of his life “more vividly than just about any other.” It certainly infused him with a work ethic and drive that served him well much later.
When he left LSI Logic in 1993 to start nVidia (NASDAQ: NVDA), he faced intense competition in the graphics chips market. nVidia had to compete with Cirrus Logic, 3Dfx, Tseng Labs, S3, Rendition and Chips and Technologies. They are all gone now, run out of town or acquired by nVidia in its relentless drive to make faster, more powerful graphics chips.
Huang didn’t stop at making the fastest videogame chips for PCs. He pursued the lucrative console market, scoring deals to put nVidia technology in the original Xbox from Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and the PlayStation 3 from Sony (NYSE: SNE). He went into the mobile market, despite making chips that have twice as many transistors as an Intel CPU and draw several times as much power.
Now, nVidia is entering the handheld space with its Tegra, designed to go head-to-head with Intel’s Atom, and with its CUDA language, nVidia is promoting the idea of using its 240-core graphics processors to do large-scale mathematical computing jobs in a fraction of the time it would take a four-core CPU.
nVidia has earned lots of laurels, including the title “Company of the Year” for 2007 by Forbes magazine, but Huang has yet to rest on them.
Steve Jobs, Apple
Let’s review. In an industry full of one-trick–and far more no-trick–ponies, Apple’s CEO has shown a unique ability to see the product potential in new technology to produce cool new products that consumers and businesses want to buy.
Sure, there were MP3 players before the iPod, but the slick interface, and ease of use with the iPod, combined with the iTunes online music store, proved so compelling that Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) soon dominated the market.
But after the arrival of Apple’s iPhone last year, users finally had easy-to-use mobile access to the Web. With the iPhone’s touch screen, users can now literally let their fingers do the browsing.
Likewise, plenty of mobile applications existed for mobile phones, but no other company has made them as easy to access and use right away than Apple with the iPhone’s App Store. Jobs should also get credit for driving interest in Apple’s once-sluggish Macintosh desktop line, which has enjoyed faster sales growth in the U.S. this past year than leading competitors.
Apple, and Jobs in particular, are not infallible. The iPhone 3G and 2.0 software launch hasn’t gone smoothly, with numerous reports of dropped calls and connectivity issues. Likewise, problems occurred with Apple’s recently introduced MobileMe online service for syncing data between devices.
Zach Nelson, NetSuite
Zach Nelson wasn’t CEO of NetSuite (NYSE: N) when in 1998 the company (called NetLedger back then) helped usher in the era of Web-based applications and software-as-a-service. However, it wasn’t until 2002 when the affable, baseball-loving Nelson took the helm that the company started to expand its product offerings, global reach and market presence.
Nelson brought the company public less than a year ago (December 2007), and its market cap is currently around $1 billion.
Salesforce grabs more headlines, but NetSuite has taken on the more complex task of offering a full on-demand business suite that encompasses ERP, CRM, inventory control, e-commerce and accounting to mid and large companies. While some still associate NetSuite with its legendary lead investor Larry Ellison, make no mistake: This is Nelson’s company.
While still not profitable, the company is growing. Its annual revenue has grown from $17.7 million in 2004 to $108.5 million in 2007. Its revenues for the first six months of 2008 were $71 million, up from $48.7 million for the same period in 2007. NetSuite also continues to grow globally with 20 percent of its revenue coming from outside of North America.
Numbers aside, you have to love a CEO who not only sold NetSuite to the Oakland A’s, but also recruited the team’s General Manager Billy Beane to its board of directors.
Sam Palmisano, IBM
Before you assail us for selecting a leader of a huge tech bellwether, hold up. Sam Palmisano has earned the respect of colleagues and rivals for his ability to see where tech is going and maneuver a tanker-size ship called IBM (NYSE: IBM) through the shoal-strewn waters of tech to get there.
He’s also got a strong senior management team making sure the strategy that backs up that vision is on course. Consulting and software divisions are two main examples.
He also saw the need to divide its huge consulting division into the business process engineering division to help companies navigate their far-flung networks that suffer from the limitations of legacy investments that work well, but don’t go far enough any more.
He stayed the course on IBM’s plan to exit money-losing businesses such as its HDD and has taken risks with the Cell chip. He helped oversee the software acquisitions in the past year that help hold IBM’s edge in business intelligence software, such as Cognos, the Business Intelligence software provider. That move alone is a huge complement to its consulting ranks, which are pulling in an even bigger lion’s share of IBM’s annual revenues and profit.
Joe Tucci, EMC
EMC’s ambition is nothing less than to manage all information, wherever it resides, a reach that its competitors could find tough to duplicate. If you think Tucci’s approach is ruthless, you wouldn’t be alone.
EMC (NYSE: EMC) expects to be the storage box provider for big corporate guns as well as the mom-and-pop shop in Brooklyn.
It wants to be “the” datacenter end-all vendor for both ends of the spectrum and everyone in between, and its consistent savvy technology acquisition strategy illustrates that Joe Tucci not only knows what’s needed, but knows where to spend the money and, most important, knows how to fit the pieces together for a tightly woven product portfolio puzzle.
In January, EMC was the first to pull the new storage technology darling, solid state drives, into its high-end product offering — putting SSD (define)on the storage map. It’s played a similar leading-the-charge role with the VMware (NYSE: VMW) virtualization acquisition.
Some call EMC’s moves nothing short of brutal; others say shrewd. He may not make the nice guys of tech list, but the company he leads is leading the market fight for SMB and consumer storage revenue. It’s hit these marks, in part, by snapping up Mozy and Iomega in acquisitions, and then tying those tools in with its Retrospect Express tool for a all-in-one local and remote storage approach. EMC also stayed focused on refreshing its popular Clariion line with flash, spin-down and virtual provisioning features.
Teams at EMC are working on a high-end cloud storage effort, code-named Hulk, which is expected to usher new innovations in clustered storage into the market.
Sure, the buy approach is considered easier than build by some. But as competitors such as Sun Microsystems can attest, actually figuring out how and where that newly bought technology works best and provides good value, in both customer solutions and return-on-investment isn’t easy.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook
Here come the slings and arrows. The wunderkind of Facebook inspired the most controversy on this list. But a deeply divided editorial staff ultimately gave the nod to the Facebook CEO because he, more than any other current CEO in this sector, is the poster child for the collaborative, participatory way we use the Internet, known broadly as Web 2.0.
Since the launch of the Facebook Platform last May, the social networking/collaboration experience has been one increasingly defined by the applications created by third-party developers.
Zuckerberg saw this and acted faster than most, and in the time since, Facebook has been raising the bar in the social networking space and adding members at a phenomenal rate. Facebook is now the largest social network in the world.
Earlier this year Forbes magazine named Zuckerberg, then 23, the world’s youngest billionaire. This for a company that’s still groping for a business model!
Yes, a tough pick for some of the editors, given that we’re naming a visionary CEO who has admitted that he doesn’t know how his company will make money.
Facebook is perhaps the most-hyped startup to grace the Valley since Google, and, as one of the editors pointed out, Sergey and Larry didn’t have a business model at first, either.
We’re certainly not calling Facebook the next Google, but Zuckerberg has clearly built something that people truly love — some to the point of addiction. While the company has made notable missteps (news feeds, Beacon) that have led some to question the management’s savvy, we believe that Facebook is here to stay, and that Zuckerberg’s vision is largely to credit with reshaping the way we understand the social Web.
In closing, what’s a list without:
Mark Shuttleworth, CEO of open source company Canonical, has become one of the most recognizable CEOs in the Linux marketplace. Shuttleworth has led his Ubuntu Linux distribution from nothing less than four years ago to its current position among the leaders in the space.
Fred Chang, former CEO of NewEgg.com, has carved out new markets and profits by taking the fundamentals of retailing–good customer service–and applying it to a world where slim to none exists: online retailing. Visionary enough? Some think so for a company that has some of the strongest word of mouth among retailers anywhere.
Sergey Brin/Larry Page, co-founders, Google. They are not CEOs, so technically, they are not eligible. But Google’s Chrome browser alone is visionary territory, but online applications, improvements in Google finance also kept these Googlies on the transom.
Jim Balsille of Research In Motion (RIM) got a bunch of votes for overseeing three new Blackberry smartphones into the market in the past year. RIM’s (NASDAQ: RIMM) also seeing some problems in market share erosion, but on the sheer vision of new products into the marketplace, it has a lot to be proud of.
LinkedIn’s founder and former CEO Reid Hoffman got votes but missed on technicalities since Dan Nye is officially the CEO of the social networking company. But Hoffman’s vision, including taking the leap into subscriptions and building out a “social network for grown-ups,” has made a difference in the industry. Keeping our eyes on this one, and plenty more executives making big moves in the year unfolding.
Written by Richard Adhikari, Kenneth Corbin, Erin Joyce, Sean Michael Kerner, Judy Mottl, Dan Muse, David Needle, Andy Patrizio, and Chris Saunders. Edited by Brian T. Horowitz. Article courtesy of InternetNews.com.