In the spring of 1999, Eric Schmidt was the CEO of networking giant Novell—which, at the time, made him one of the more important people in the tech industry. His reputation for being good at managing nerdy geniuses inspired Fast Company to profile him and share his secrets, such as “create new ways to promote your geeks” and “either geeks are part of the solution—or they’re the problem.”
As our Russ Mitchell wrote:
A good deal of the credit for Novell’s turnaround must go to Schmidt, who excels at getting the best out of his geeks. He has used his tech savvy to bring focus to Novell’s product line and his geek-cred to reenergize a workforce of highly skilled but (until recently) deeply dispirited technologists. In general, Schmidt speaks of his geeks in complimentary terms, while acknowledging their vulnerabilities and shortcomings. “One of the main characteristics of geeks is that they are very truthful,” says Schmidt (who, in fact, uses the term “geek” only occassionally). “They are taught to think logically. If you ask engineers a precise question, they will give you a precisely truthful answer. That also tends to mean that they’ll only answer the question that you asked them. If you don’t ask them exactly the right question, sometimes they’ll evade you — not because they’re lying but because they’re being so scrupulously truthful.”
At the time, Google was a year-old underdog in the search wars. Two years later, when the startup decided that its cofounders—the decidedly brilliant Larry Page and Sergey Brin—could use some management, they brought in Schmidt as CEO. Now that he’s stepping down as executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, it’s fun to revisit our 1999 story and the advice Schmidt dispensed. Read it here.