"Bitter as a good beer, this Bob Metcalfe piece is refreshing
down well. Lot of clues in there."
Taken from Wired, 7.11 - Nov 1999 (feature article)
The Visionary Thing
Hey, it's not easy being a Valley proto-prophet.
By Bob Metcalfe
My advice is never let a publicist call you a visionary. I've
with the visionaries at the famed Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. I've
been a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur. I wouldn't touch
visionary with a 10-foot pole. It's like putting Who's Who on your
résumé, not realizing the whole thing is a moneymaking scam that plays
off the vanity of climbers. I'd choose entrepreneur over visionary every
It was back in the '80s that they started trying it out on me.
January 1979, I had left Xerox PARC to pursue entrepreneurial ambitions.
By June, at 33, I'd founded 3Com Corporation. In another 18 months, I'd
raised $1.1 million of venture capital, which in those days was serious
money. And in another year, to my naive delight, investors and
colleagues started calling me a visionary.
Intoxicated by the flattery, I didn't immediately realize I
manipulated. I didn't know that nobody really wants visionaries running
companies, that visionary is a code word used by investors and
colleagues for an unruly guy who, through an accident of history, holds
a huge chunk of stock in an otherwise promising company.
It's an old story, I know, but I wanted to run the company I'd
Everybody else involved wanted me to sit down and shut up.
I aspired to be both the visionary and the CEO. Where
be good at persuasion, CEOs are good at wielding authority. Visionaries
transcend organizations, resources, and current realities, while CEOs
master them. I wanted to do both: think deep thoughts and recruit the
team; accumulate fame and direct corporate strategy; plus, ignore the
chain of command, undermine day-to-day operations, and opine endlessly
on matters of international importance that had nothing to do with the
business at hand.
So I started looking for professional managers to handle
operations. I expected that they would do what I told them, filling in
and handling the dirty details, which, as you'll recall, is where God
But making the visionary-manager relationship work is like
bulls into a china shop. Your chosen managers will be winners, in which
case you won't be tolerated for long. Or they won't be, in which case
you won't be tolerated for long. Either way, there's all that broken
My professional managers, led by Bill Krause from
winners. In 16 months flat, Krause took the CEO title away from me and
over the next eight years grew the company from 12 to 2,000 people.
I figured out quickly, as Krause was wrenching my company from
being a visionary means, worst case, being dumped. At best it means
being a contributing editor on the masthead of a magazine like Wired.
What happens to old visionaries? They end their days with libraries
full of books they've written - and if they can be happy with that,
fine. Too often, though, they're twisted by their jealousy of the people
who have made real what they only predicted. Crying in the wilderness
is what visionaries do, and in general, they are not very happy with
So after my crucifixion, I chose not to flounce off in a huff.
neither did I settle for being the company's pet visionary, although
every time I underperformed, the job was offered to me. Instead, after
CEO, I rose again to be vice president of sales and marketing, up
through a million dollars a month, and then, as general manager of
various divisions, up to $400 million a year, which turned out to be the
top of my operating range.
Now I'm fortunate to have a six-story townhouse overlooking
River in Boston. I sometimes host salons there for entrepreneurs, and
frequently find myself talking to young MIT engineers who say, Gosh, I
hope to be a visionary like you and invent something like Ethernet so I
can have a house like this. Inventing Ethernet didn't get me this house,
I tell them. Building a company to make Ethernet and waking up early in
hotels for 20 years to sell it got me this house.
There is, of course, a much more famous case of two bulls in a
shop. Steve Jobs is today not the annoying visionary he once was, but
CEO and kicking butt at Apple. During his first stint there, though,
Jobs played visionary to John Sculley's CEO. They locked horns soon
enough. After Jobs' expulsion, Sculley tried for a while to be the
visionary, publishing his book, Odyssey, and some visionary videos.
Now both Jobs and Sculley, though not reconciled, are out of
respective penalty boxes. Neither goes near the visionary peg. Sculley
is a venture "catalyst" who claims to be nothing more than a marketing
man. There's another book in the works - not by, but about, Jobs - who's
busy again not predicting but creating the future.
For some, though, the allure of the visionary title is
Consider poor Ted Nelson. A couple of years ago I went to hear the
hypermedia visionary talk at a big conference in Washington. In a room
with hundreds of seats, there were maybe five of us there sitting at his
feet. Apparently, people have grown tired of listening to Nelson
bitterly reminding us of what he told-us-so decades ago.
Of course Nelson did tell us so, in his anthology of ideas
about what we
would later call the World Wide Web. But then, having the misfortune of
being the son of a movie star, which carries the same burdens as being a
high school quarterback, he didn't do much about it; nothing, at least,
that panned out. Actually, Nelson wasn't nearly the first to tell us
about the Web. MIT's Vannevar Bush laid most of it out in the '40s,
before digital, and J. C. R. Licklider brought it back in the '60s,
before personal computers.
Now if there were a Web visionary who had reason to complain,
be Tim Berners-Lee. He designed the first Web protocols and wrote the
first browser code almost single-handedly beginning in 1989, somewhat
after but with considerably more impact than Nelson. Berners-Lee is now
a cloistered academic researcher at MIT, while Marc Andreessen, who did
nothing more than write the third or fourth Web browser as a college
student, went on to found Netscape, get rich, and become technical
visionary at AOL (a position that held his interest for a total of seven
months). And then Andreessen could complain, and has in fact done so in
court, about the usurpation of his Web visions by Bill Gates.
Nobody, especially after reading his books, calls Gates a
He's a tycoon.
Bush, Licklider, Berners-Lee, Andreessen, Gates - Nelson will
stand in line a long time to get all the credit he thinks he's due.
Also speaking at that Washington conference was Doug
forever be remembered for inventing the mouse. Engelbart's talk was
better attended than Nelson's, but also laced with bitterness.
It was my dubious honor to summarize at the conference's
what Engelbart had said. I told the attendees, some of whom had just
woken up from his talk, that Engelbart had not gone over the hill and
grown bitterly boring in old age. I told them what I knew from direct
experience, that he had been a boring speaker in his prime. I recall
falling almost dead asleep in his SRI office in Menlo Park during a
late-afternoon job interview in 1972. I'm sure I missed out on quite a
lot by failing to listen more attentively. (For one thing, I went to
Xerox PARC instead.)
Gosh, they say, I hope to be a visionary like you and have a
Engelbart got left behind because he embodied his visions in
time-shared computers of his day and missed the detour we all took into
stand-alone personal computers. With the emergence of the Web, though,
he'll be back. He also recently won the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for
his lifetime of innovation, which has taken the edge off his crying in
One of the best illustrations of the shelf life of visionaries
PARC, which was a hotbed of them. Perhaps the most famous of the
brilliant-research-centers-that-barely-made-anything, PARC was great at
nursing big thinkers.
Follow this true tale about how nobody wanted to do the
shit work. They all wanted to be visionaries themselves.
It begins with PARC's Computer Science Lab. CSL was a tree
full of owls,
so PARC created a Systems Science Lab (SSL) to take visionary ideas from
CSL and engineer them into products.
But of course the good people in SSL preferred not to be a
CSL, but to have their own visionary ideas. So in time PARC created an
Advanced Development Lab (ADL) to make practical prototypes out of the
ideas from CSL and SSL. PARC cleverly put ADL in Los Angeles, 400 miles
from the visionaries, just so ADL people would not be confused about
Well, you guessed it. ADL's Angelenos would rather have had
fingernails pulled out one at a time than adopt even a single idea from
the arrogant twits up near what they insisted on calling Frisco.
And so Xerox, by then desperate to make something of its
PARC, created a Systems Development Division (SDD), in Palo Alto, where
I worked starting in 1976. And then - as that wasn't quite working out
- an Advanced Systems Division (ASD), also in Palo Alto. Next, Xerox's
Office Products Division (OPD) in Dallas was given the job.
The technology transfer from PARC's CSL visionaries did not
make it to
market through the bucket brigade of ever more practical, self-effacing,
and subvisionary people in SSL, ADL, SDD, ASD, and OPD. What did happen
is that various entrepreneurs, some from within PARC, after a polite
period, and some from without, with no politeness at all, stole the
visions and made them profitable.
For contrast, consider Compaq, now the world's second-largest
computer company. Never had a visionary. After Jobs at Apple and Don
Estridge (R.I.P.) at IBM, Rod Canion founded Compaq to do no more than
make money cloning IBM PCs. When that simple idea ran out of runway, in
came Eckhard Pfeiffer, not a visionary if there ever wasn't one. Compaq
is now looking, not for its first visionary, but for someone even
tougher than Pfeiffer. I'm pushing Slobodan Milosevic.
Now, to be sure, there are visionaries who don't end up poor
or at least haven't yet. There are MIT's two Greek visionary computer
lab directors, Nicholas Negroponte and Michael Dertouzos - although they
have the unfair advantage of leading research toward their visions, and
then graduating students who become entrepreneurs in their name. And
there's Sky Dayton, who doesn't seem the least bit piqued not to be at
his company's helm any longer. Dayton, who founded EarthLink, now a
large and growing ISP, brags about not having been admitted to college
while envisioning how the Internet should evolve. Despite the failure
of her girl-software company, famed to have been flooded with visions,
so far Brenda Laurel is still affable. And Alan Kay, one of PARC's most
famous visionaries, betrays a bit of I-told-you-so, but he's far from
bitter. Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future, is a
professional think-tank visionary in his prime. I only worry Saffo will
succumb to the classic temptation of frequent speakers (and I'm not
exempt): saying things that are not right but cute.
So, despite the term's sketchy track record, plenty of people
claiming it. But I wouldn't. Not with a 10-foot pole. Of course, as you
may have noticed, it's quite a trick to get credit without taking it.
So, in my dotage, I've settled on the term pundit - a guru without
followers, opining about technology. You probably think that, after all
this, I know that you know that I want you to think I'm a visionary
anyway. Well, you couldn't be further from or closer to the truth.
Bob Metcalfe (firstname.lastname@example.org), the inventor of Ethernet, founder of
3Com, and eponymous hero of Metcalfe's Law, writes a weekly column for
InfoWorld and organizes the annual Vortex and Agenda conferences.