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The Boffin Fallacy

Boffin Fallacy
(ˈbɒfɪn fal-uh-see)
— n
The misconception Technologists do not understand business – that it’s something they can’t do, something they won’t enjoy and something that is beneath them.

As I mentioned in my last post, I spent last week delivering the Turing Lecture around Britain. The Lecture is normally a rather technical affair, but one of the reasons the BCS and the IET invited me to participate was to address the commercial side of computing. Computing has been an area of both commercial and academic endeavor since its very early years, and I enjoyed being given the opportunity to talk about my own experiences, graduating from a very academic institution yet, ultimately, following a very commercial path. There’s been a great deal of interest in Britain recently about the role innovation-led business can play in securing the kind of growth required to get the country’s economy motoring again, so it turned out to be a well-timed theme. Historically, the prevailing perception has been that Britain turns out great scientists, inventors and technical minds (from here I call them ‘technologists’ collectively) but cannot match the American flair for business and marketing. Critics often blame the education system, suggesting that there’s some missing ingredient in the syllabus, or point to the absence of an ecosystem like Silicon Valley but, after much reflection, I disagree. While there is clearly room for improvement, I don’t believe that any lack of entrepreneurship in Britain is related to a skills gap or even challenges such as access to capital, or an economic environment that punishes or deters entrepreneurs. I think the problem is mindset. British culture has a warped view of the technologist—a bumbling boffin who can’t and won’t succeed at business. This attitude, a phenomenon I call the Boffin Fallacy, was the core of my lecture and is the reason I think Britain fails at the technology business, at least in comparison to the US. The most damaging property of the Boffin Fallacy is not that the country woefully underestimates and pigeonholes its brightest technologists; it’s that the technologists have heard it so often that they have come to believe it themselves.

I believe that in recent history Britain has underestimated science and engineering. Once a highly regarded and gentlemanly pursuit, at some point ignorance of these disciplines became a perverse badge of honor. C.P. Snow probably made this point the best (if you haven’t read the Two Cultures, it’s worth a read—both for the content and also for a reminder of a time when great arguments were made over an hour, and were not reduced to simplistic, TV-friendly sound bites). I won’t be able to capture the depth or breadth of his arguments here, but to summarize, as a successful author AND chemist and therefore a member of both the literary and scientific classes, he was dismayed by the great divide between the two disciplines and, in particular, how members of the former appeared quick and proud to dismiss any understanding of the latter. He tells anecdotally of testing this by asking those with a liberal arts background whether they knew what the Second Law of Thermodynamics states. He shares that most are ignorant of the law even though, as he says, the question is the scientific equivalent of asking if you’ve ever read a work of Shakespeare. Snow delivered the Two Cultures lecture in 1959, but this isn’t merely a historical prejudice. Only last year, Alan Sugar, Britain’s own Donald Trump and around the time, the UK Government appointed ‘Enterprise Champion’, dismissed a contestant on Britain’s version of the Apprentice with the disparaging comment that he “never knew an engineer who could turn their hand to business”. Technologists hit back in force—James Dyson wrote an eloquent piece about the country’s misunderstanding of engineers and engineering, while Eric Schmidt, who was visiting the UK at the time, simply retorted, “Really? I don’t think we’ve done too badly!”. But British technologists can’t simply blame everyone else. We have our own disdain for business. During the lecture tour, I played a small trick on my, primarily technologist, audiences. In an updated version of the C.P. Snow question, I asked them if they knew what a Discounted Cash Flow was. Before my lecture, I don’t think most did and would have reacted with the same disdain of a Classics major being asked about the Second Law of Thermodynamics even though I think I can make a convincing argument that the DCF and its use in valuing assets the world over is as significant a force in our lives as the latter. I think this demonstrates that the Boffin Fallacy isn’t simply engendered by the British population not getting technologists. It’s exacerbated by technologists not pursuing (and not wanting to pursue) commercial opportunities. Smart kids who study science and engineering in Britain are encouraged to pursue an academic or at least technical career, there’s an insidious implication that there’s something impure or less exalted about commerce and the block and tackle of business.

I know this because I felt it myself. When blinkx, originally an internal project at Autonomy, readied itself for spin-out and started looking for a CEO, the Autonomy management team kept asking me to take the role. I spent months saying no, assuming there was some special ‘business knowledge’ that I, as a technologist, didn’t possess and assuming instead that the role of CTO was somehow more appropriate (and, ok, I’ll admit it, glorious) for me.

I am, of course, generalizing. There are particular skills and abilities that mean some people are better suited for being an entrepreneur, a CEO or a businessperson. But my point is that I don’t believe technologists are any innately less likely to possess these talents and, while a bit of training can help, I seriously question the idea that an MBA is required to do the job well. In fact, given the increasingly quantitative reality of areas like marketing and finance, I’d make the argument that the analytical, rigorous nature of science and engineering degrees, might make those technologists better equipped to run a business than ever before. Look at just about any list of technology companies in the US and time and time again you’ll find technically educated CEOs (nary an MBA in sight) both start and run companies.

The good news, in Britain at least, is that this appears to be changing. Firstly, as the speech above shows, the government has identified that innovation-led growth is a key ingredient in helping the country out of its current rut. Second, and remarkably, given current economic climate, it has put its money where its mouth is by funding innovation centers and initiatives galore, with over half a billion pounds in investment over the last few years. Also, there are real signs that computer science (versus basic IT) may soon be included on school syllabuses and organizations like the Royal Academy of Engineering, British Computing Society and Institute of Engineering and Technology are all pouring funds and efforts into drawing kids toward technology and also into the business of technology and innovation. (Disclaimer: I’m a member of all of these organizations—this is probably why I’m aware of their recent programs, I’m sure others are doing the same). And, no less important, there are great people out there who are trying to spread this story in their own, unique ways. Some of them came to my lectures and it was great to hear about the ways they are engaging the population to shift this mind-set. The lectures also attracted a whole bunch of entrepreneurs, young and old, neophyte and serial, which was great to see and cities like Cardiff, Glasgow and Manchester are able to hold their own against London in this respect too.

I ended the lecture on this positive note: there is no doubt that Britain with its great education system has, for generations, been the birthplace of amazingly talented inventors whose creations mean the country continues to punch above its weight in innovation and technology. The tragedy is that for a very long time now, we have failed to help these inventors follow through and create and run the businesses that exploit these inventions. Data shows that these technology/founder CEOs do better than their hired ‘businessperson’ counterparts, so when the Boffin Fallacy gets in the way and stops them from making this leap, we end up limiting the positive commercial, societal and even technological impact of their ingenuity. We end up selling innovation short.

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