We Want Our Tech Visionaries to Be Unscripted, Not Unbalanced

(Bloomberg) -- A secretive driverless-car company called Zoox Inc. fired its chief executive officer last week. Investors had just handed over $500 million—yet another nose-bleeding amount for a company with no actual product. The ouster by the company’s board was “Silicon Valley up to its worst tricks,” tweeted the dismissed CEO, Tim Kentley-Klay, and it came “without a warning, cause or right of reply.”

But there was, in fact, a warning, in the form of my colleague Ashlee Vance’s revealing profile of Zoox in the pages of Bloomberg Businessweek a few weeks ago. In the piece, Kentley-Klay comes across as a bit of a flimflam artist, a 43-year-old former ad guy who bought a $16,000 Sub-Zero fridge for the office because he thought it looked cool, popped dextroamphetamine before an important presentation at Google and had no actual background in technology or AI before he started the company. “The jury is still out on whether I am full of sh-t,” Kentley-Klay told Vance, perhaps handing the prosecution Exhibit A with that delicious quote.

As technology journalists, we live for such uninhibited candor. But there’s a difference between being direct and unscripted, and being, well, off. That’s a distinction that is surely plaguing a lot of tech investors these days, particularly those at Tesla Inc., where Elon Musk’s seemingly ill-considered Aug. 7 tweet that he planned to take his company private plunged the automaker into chaos.

Last week, my Bloomberg colleagues reported that Musk has retained Morgan Stanley to help with the proposed deal and that his board was on the lookout for a senior executive to help Musk run the company. Then on Friday, he presented a list of reasons for why this was a bad idea for shareholders and the company, proposing to put a swift end to his misguided plan. These pedestrian business considerations have been overshadowed by the personal spectacle threaded through the Tesla drama. There was the erratic New York Times interview, in which Musk admitted to having written the tweet while driving to the airport, and his ongoing Instagram feud with Azealia Banks. If, like me, you’ve been on a blissful, social media-free summer vacation, the Ringer has a nice rundown about what that is all about.

Despite all the drama of the past year, the world still mythologizes tech pioneers like Musk and Kentley-Klay. We love polymaths, risk-takers and explorers. But too often those characteristics are bundled with more unseemly ones, such as combativeness, boorishness and a tendency to cut corners. We don’t want our tech CEOs to be boring, but we’re increasingly turned off when they turn out to be self-destructive, or worse.

I thought of this contradiction again when reading the Times preview of the forthcoming memoir, Small Fry, by Lisa Brennan-Jobs, daughter of Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs. Brennan-Jobs recounts her father’s atrocious antics during her childhood, such as turning to her cousin one night at dinner and saying, “Have you ever thought about how awful your voice is? ... You should really consider what’s wrong with yourself and try to fix it.”

The book, which apparently had a long and difficult gestation, is shaping up to be a must read for the fall. Tech CEOs were once lionized despite—or even because of—their flaws. Not anymore.

And here’s what you need to know in global technology news

Tencent is fighting for Fortnite. China’s biggest tech company is seeking government approval to publish the world’s hottest game in its home market.

Airbnb sued New York City. It doesn’t like a new ordinance that collects host data and polices short-term rentals.

Two of YouTube’s biggest stars squared off in a pay-per-view boxing match. Logan Paul and KSI held an event on Saturday to demonstrate that YouTube celebrity can translate to ticket and paid video sales. Neither is a professional athlete.

Tech companies met to discuss a 2018 election strategy. Representatives from several of the largest internet companies convened in San Francisco to prepare for the U.S. midterm election, BuzzFeed reported.

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