I understand Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson’s predicament. I don’t agree with how he handled it.
You see, both Scott Thompson and I work in the technical industry, and neither of us have a degree in computer science, computer engineering, some other kind of engineering, high mathematics, or another socially accepted relevant-to-the-industry field.
I’ve always been up front about my degree. University of Missouri-Columbia, Bachelors of Journalism. (I won’t tell you the year unless I’m applying for a job.) At one point I considered a minor in computer science, but about nine hours in, I found I couldn’t do both well at the same time.
I can’t say I’ve ever regretted it. I took enough CS classes to take care of my science prerequisites to graduate, to learn how a programmer thinks, and to confirm that I’m not a gifted programmer. What I missed by dropping the minor was two classes specific to the IBM System/370 running VM/CMS. VM was the operating system, and CMS was the operating environment. (Think of it like Windows 3.1–DOS was the operating system and Windows was the environment.) Nobody has ever walked up to me and said he wished I knew more about the System/370 and VM/CMS. Never ever. More knowledge of those two things wouldn’t help me do my job any better–it would just be one more obscure technology I could reference, and people are already sick of me bringing up the Amiga. (If my coworkers haven’t created a drinking game around that, it’s only because they haven’t thought of it yet.)
A computer science degree from Mizzou would not have prepared me for the job I have today any better than a degree in journalism, a degree in Spanish, or a degree in anything else in particular. Some kind of a degree in business might have prepared me better than anything else. For that matter, a degree in political science would have been useful.
Then again, my journalism background hasn’t exactly been useless to me or my employers. My degree taught me how to do a better job of writing persuasively, and that’s something that I have to do frequently. So the degree I have is as much good to me as any other.
I understand Scott Thompson’s pain, because a degree in computer science, while it gives a certain credibility in some minds, really wouldn’t have helped him run Paypal or Yahoo any better. He would have graduated in the early 1980s. The fundamentals of what he would have learned studying computer science 30-35 years ago would apply today–how to think like a computer scientist–but few to none of the specifics would apply directly to the needs of an Internet company today. But besides that, it’s not like he’d be cranking out code on a regular basis, or directly supervising anyone who cranks out code on a regular basis.
So why lie about having it?
The phrase is, “Explain yourself.” And it’s not necessarily bad. If you can explain yourself, you don’t have to worry about it. I went into college with a decision to make. I liked computers but I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be a programmer. I liked to write but I wasn’t completely sold on being a journalist. The job I have now barely existed at the time and academia certainly didn’t know how to train for it. I went to college to learn, and I went to college to find myself.
I quickly proved adept at fixing my classmates’ computer problems–even those who were studying to be engineers and computer scientists. That led to a job selling computers, which led to a job installing and repairing them, which led to a full-time job running the journalism school’s computer network. Before I knew it, I was a 22-year-old with a journalism degree making a career as an IT professional.
Over the years, a handful of people haven’t liked the story and they crossed me off their candidate list. But more often than not, people have been willing to accept that I learned on my own what my school wouldn’t have taught me anyway, and I’ve had a nice career. And these days, not only do I have my word, but I have a couple of certifications to back myself up.
Scott Thompson needed to explain himself.
And I could start. I’ll argue that right now the last thing Yahoo needs is a computer scientist at the helm. Yahoo has plenty of computer scientists and developers and engineers. And as someone who uses a number of Yahoo products, I know Yahoo’s technical workers generally do nice work. And I know darn well that when they suffer a glitch, it isn’t the CEO’s job to fix it.
Yahoo has a bunch of nice products with nothing tying them together. What Yahoo really needs is some compelling way to tie together the various things they have to develop synergy and start making money again because the business model that put it on the map–one portal to serve them all–is dead. People don’t find stuff by going to portals anymore. They find them by going to search engines or social networking sites.
Someone with an accounting degree is as good as anyone else for that job. Why not? An accountant ought to know how to make money. Complement him with some other three-letter executives who have degrees and track records in marketing and business and at the very least, they stand a better chance than the two electrical engineers who started the firm.
But for whatever reason, he didn’t try to argue that his accounting degree was enough. And that’s why several vocal Yahoo investors are calling for his job on Monday.