Human Resources

Greg Gianforte and the rise of the technocrat

After a busy couple of weeks I finally got a chance to catch up with the news this morning and read about the brouhaha over Greg Gianforte, his contretemps with a Guardian reporter and his election to Montana’s seat in the US House of Representatives. By a quirk, I knew Gianforte reasonably well about 10 years ago.

That was when he was CEO of RightNow Technologies, a CRM company that, unusually at the time, offered both cloud (or what we then called SaaS) and on-premises deployment options. I met him a few times as RightNow soared; it was never as big as a Salesforce.com but was successful enough to later be acquired in 2011 by Oracle for $1.5bn.

I recall talking to Gianforte about the beauty of Montana’s ‘Big Sky’ country where RightNow was headquartered, the rise of the embryonic SaaS movement and other matters. He was polite and cordial, even when I touched on areas that might have been deemed sensitive such as the company’s stock performance versus Salesforce or a legal suit the company was pursuing.

In particular I remember him giving me a book, written with the help of a Financial Times journalist I think, called Bootstrapping Your Business, which was all about starting a business on minimal resources. He told me that it was everybody’s dream to start a company and when I suggested that in Europe this was not the case he corrected himself to say that in the US, where state provisions for pensions, healthcare and so on are often less, more people dream of becoming startup entrepreneurs.

We didn’t talk about government policy directly but on reflection it’s no great surprise that Gianforte should have taken to politics and even a version of Republican politics that seems to lean towards Donald Trump. Gianforte also refers to the “swamp” of political spending and wants to “make … America great again”. The inefficiencies of governments all over the world tend to make CEOs despair, even if their comments usually remain off the record.

Gianforte is an example of technocracy in action and really it’s surprising that more technocrats that have been successful in the ICT industry should not have made their marks in politics. Their skills in budgeting, building a business, communicating, hiring and compensating employees – as well as their healthy egos – should make them a good fit for office. IBM star salesman and EDS founder Ross Perot once stood for US President of course and two leaders of Hewlett-Packard, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, tried for political leadership in California. Fiorina also stood as a Republican presidential candidate.

But mostly we are still waiting on technocrats to rise to political power and today it’s still the case that, if they have a connection at all, the influential come from the fringes of technology rather than having had stellar careers. In the UK I knew Daniel Finkelstein when he was a technology journalist, long before he became a Times leader writer, close advisor to George Osborne and was elevated to become Baron Finkelstein. I was also acquainted with Jeremy Hunt, who co-founded technology PR company Profile, well before becoming a controversial Secretary of State for Health.

But mostly politics and technology seem to be an oil-and-water combination. CEOs fight shy of giving political opinions unless they are directly affected and philanthropy, as embodied by Bill Gates, is often preferred. When technologists do come out with strong views there is often some sort of fallout. The departing Autodesk CEO Carl Bass recently blasted Trump but then stepped down. The entrepreneur Peter Thiel earned dislike over his sympathy for Trump. An outspoken type like former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy remains exceptional.

Even if the tech and politics worlds have only intersected a little so far, it’s likely that as technology continues to drive wealth and change, more technologists will emerge for leadership roles. A technocrat US President in the next decade or two? Entirely possible.


Also read:
Upset by America, Scott McNealy still rages


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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