Who is a better choice for managing a software business? A person whose primary background is technology or whose primary background is management(mostly sales or marketing). In this article Joel seems to prefer geeks over suits but cautions that geeks have also screwed up in managing or scaling up companies, the prime example being Netscape. The meek conclusion he draws is “one needs to have a background of both technology as well as management” to succeed in a software business.
But if you look closely at the examples he gives in the article (or if you look at other examples or successful or failed companies) I think the crucial ability does not have to do anything with both these aspects. A successful CEO can build a team that blends expertise in both these areas and can get advice on the appropriate technologies as well as management strategies. But ultimately what has paid of in any business, both software or any other businesses, is a phenomenal focus on customers. Apple failed to realize that its customers wanted applications, cheaper PCs and better customer service. All those were offered by Microsoft with its software based business model. Netscape failed to see that the customers would not pay for browsers and the real interest customers have is to transact, find information and use applications on the internet. I do not think any geek or suit could have by himself be able to see this eventuality. Only a CEO who is looking for customer delight would be able to spot these trends.
Some more examples are google who guessed that the lucrative business lies in acting as an intermediary in the online advertising market, amazon who realized early that online commerce’s main strength is the collaboration filtering and the user reviews database and made them the center point of their user experience and ebay who steadfastly focused on the community aspects of their marketplace. These was strong technology in the background but it started from user needs and then developed the requisite pieces as needed.
So a successful technology company can have either a geek or a suit as the CEO. He needs to be tremendously customer focused and would need to understand the appropriate technology for the specific customer need. I think earlier these types were a rarity since most of the people who dealt with technology were programmers but today that is not the case. You would find a lot of suits who are in technology deeply and vice versa.
Update : Some more thoughts on this. Ventureblog, businesspundit . Both vote for a tech CEO.