Is Peter Thiel the Most Powerful Person in Tech?

There are generally two paths for dealing with someone in power when disagreements arise. One is to confront, and the other is to understand and influence. What is interesting is the most common path taken is the former while the most successful is the latter. I think the reason is that the former path is both the natural path for disagreement and the most visible. Confrontation is always more newsworthy than influence.

When done right, exerting influence has the odd result of not conveying credit while actually making far more progress. This suggests that one of the ways to determine whether someone is doing something because they believe in the outcome vs. doing it for fame and status is whether they move to influence or to confront.

The vast majority of tech executives and politicians confronted Trump, which had little impact on him, while Peter Thiel moved to influence. As a result, he now may be the most powerful person in tech, even though that didn’t appear to be his goal.

I’ll share some thoughts about that this week and close with my last product of the week, which has to be Varonis. It is the one product that could have prevented virtually all of the high-profile breaches that crippled both Yahoo and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

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Confrontation and Backstabbing

One of the most common ways decisions are made in the tech industry is that the most outspoken and disagreeable person at the table wins, and the person who is better founded but isn’t as focused on the status of winning often loses. I call this the “biggest assh*le at the table method,” but there is a more technical term for this: argumentative theory. I’ve reviewed a lot of failed companies, and at the heart of most failures seems to be this process.

There is a second process that is equally common, in tech firms in particular, and it has a common name that I’ll paraphrase because I can’t use the actual name in mixed company. It is “kiss you screw you.” This occurs after everyone at the table agrees, and then a bunch go out and do everything they can to cause the idea to fail in order to screw the poor person who is trying to execute.

If you’ve ever wondered why a lot of good ideas fail, it is largely because some group of folks inside companies secretly move to cause them to fail. Personally, I think people should be fired for doing that, but they often are rewarded instead, which suggests there are a lot of managers on the wrong side of this practice.

I personally think the Obama administration was defined by both practices. The Republicans largely practiced the “biggest assh*le at the table” method and were obstructionist, while the Democrats seemed to agree but acted against the president behind the scenes, which is why efforts like Obamacare were such a train wreck.

Collaboration and Influence

Compare the way much of the tech industry supported Clinton vs. how Peter Thiel supported Trump. Clinton got money and vocal support, and Thiel provided technical advice and focus. He advised and kept tightly to tech topics like cybersecurity, which are critical to the well being of the country. Clinton’s massive support from the industry largely consisted of money, because most thought she was an idiot. That was thanks largely to the email thing, but I’ve seen notes going back years, suggesting that was hardly a new perception.

The right path for Clinton’s supporters would have been to fix the “idiot” thing. Yet there is no evidence it was even attempted. Thiel, in contrast, worked to make Trump smarter, and the result was not only better execution in the final days of the campaign, but also last week’s tech meeting, which focused on making tech companies more profitable.

Contrast this with Eric Schmidt’s relationship with President Obama, which became an embarrassment for the president and didn’t seem to result in anything but an unusual protection against antitrust charges for Google. As a result, it’s arguable that tech actually appears weaker at the end of Obama’s term than it did at the beginning. If the current trend holds, that shouldn’t be the case with Trump, but that outcome will depend largely on Thiel’s relationship with Trump.

Thiel vs. Gawker

Peter Thiel spent $10M taking out Gawker, which scared a lot of folks because it silenced a voice in media. Personally, I thought Gawker was an abomination — largely because it focused on disclosing personal information about powerful people or celebrities, doing them harm for money.

Gawker had its roots in tech, and a tech service that monetizes hurting people tarnishes the entire industry and is counter to efforts that are working to eliminate bad behavior, like bullying, by making it appear like you can bully anyone. By the way, this doesn’t mean that I agree with some of the behavior that Gawker called out — I just don’t think it is in the tech industry’s best interest to validate the hostile use of personal information, given the critical need to protect everyone’s individual privacy.

I’m kind of surprised more tech CEOs haven’t backed Thiel’s efforts, largely because having a “secret mistress” is an extremely common perk of the job. My guess is that most believe they are careful and that their clandestine relationships won’t be reported. Sadly, many aren’t as good at keeping this stuff secret as they think. Had Gawker not been killed, many of those delusional executives likely would have had some explaining to do to their wives, kids, employees, stockholders and boards. Such things rarely go well, so Thiel did them one hell of a favor that most may never appreciate fully.

Wrapping Up: Thiel vs. Whitman

Perhaps the biggest contrast was between Thiel and Whitman. Thiel focused on collaboration, while Whitman took the confrontational path to extremes, seemingly switching parties. Thiel will have a great deal of influence on the Trump administration, while Whitman will have zero influence on it and may find that HPE is blacklisted both by Trump’s companies and the federal government — or worse, be prioritized for contract audits.

One final thought: Because Thiel focused on talking about technology, he could have made the cut to influence Clinton. He didn’t make the conflict personal, and he clearly had a strong grasp of what needed to be done by either administration. Whitman could have influenced only Clinton, because her contribution was personal and political.

Even with Clinton, her influence likely would have been insignificant, perhaps limited to getting a largely ceremonial cabinet post. Here is the important part: Given that she is the CEO of HPE, neither outcome would have benefited HPE significantly, and the Trump outcome may have hurt it materially.

I think this showcases a best practice that the tech industry should adapt broadly: Collaboration and focusing on what the industry knows — tech — is a far better way both to influence an administration and to make a real difference.

I think it also showcases a far better personal practice as well, because constant confrontation, particularly when it is only to appear superior, or backstabbing for any reason is counterproductive to the overall effort and makes a firm less successful.

So, for those of you who have made being an assh*le or backstabbing a defining skill, if you care about making a difference, then you should change your behavior. For those of you who like being assh*les and backstabbing, be aware that the identification and elimination of folks like you has become a major feature of the coming artificial intelligence-based human resources systems, so eventually you’ll be fired. All I can say is, it will be about fricking time.

My last thought is this: Thiel suddenly has become the most powerful person in tech, not through the more typical process of backstabbing and self-aggrandizement, but because he focused like a laser on how to use tech to help the nation and Trump. I should point out something about Jobs, who clearly was the most powerful person in tech last decade. While certainly an assh*le interpersonally, he focused on making Apple great. He became famous not because he focused on gaining fame but largely because of Apple’s success. In both cases, it is that focus we should remember as a best practice.

Yahoo last week disclosed that it had experienced a breach that occurred prior to its previously disclosed mega breach and that it was much bigger, impacting 1 billion people — that is billion with a B. It means that the odds favor the fact that you have been compromised and harmed, and that it clearly wasn’t reported in a timely way so you could have protected yourself.

This is on top of indications that both the Democrats and Republicans were hacked, and that those hacks likely did have a material impact on the election, even if it was just the uneven release of compromising emails.

In virtually all cases, the hacks were not discovered until well after they had occurred, and many only when what was stolen was disclosed. Claims that emails were not hacked — like Clinton’s emails or the RNC’s emails — largely coincide with no tracking in place. That is like saying no trees fall in areas where there are no people to observe them falling. Just because you didn’t see something doesn’t mean it didn’t occur.

What makes products like Varonis different is that they monitor behavior and activity. If someone either inside the company or outside has gained access to something they either don’t have rights to or that they’ve never been interested in before, then Varonis sends an alert. These hacks can range from people pulling information to share illicitly to hacking individuals to get access in order to misuse it to download sensitive information.

What concerns me is that this class of solution seems to be avoided, because people would rather not know they have been hacked so they can claim they are secure. For some, that’s preferable to finding out they aren’t — and let’s be clear, no one is absolutely secure. Pretending otherwise is just stupid.

Some nimrod earlier this month boasted on Twitter of having my personal information, along with a password I was using back in 2013, suggesting I’m one of the folks who was hacked. Because Varonis could have prevented this, it is my product of the week, and it is a contender for my product of the year, which I’ll announce next week.

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