Lessons from a Harvard MBA grad who said no to Google

The story of Philip Delves Broughton's two years spent at Harvard might suggest lessons for today's tech businesses.

I am philosophical today. Would you take a slow walk with me and listen to a story that may not have an ending?

I was in my favorite sushi restaurant the other night when Dan, a man in a Tommy Bahama shirt, leaned over to me and, through thickly alcoholic breath, said: "There are more banks going down. Mark my words."

Normally, a Tommy Bahama shirt signifies "my brain is dead and my eyes have turned to disco balls." However, Dan is, I know, a retired accountant. The very finest, wiliest, (relatively) honest kind.

With his words still nuzzling my ears, I got home and picked up a book I was reading called Ahead of the Curve. I reached a chapter in which the author was interviewing at Google.

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The author, Philip Delves Broughton, is a former New York and Paris bureau chief of the highly conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper, who suddenly decided to enter the Harvard MBA program because he felt he needed to learn about the realities of business.

One of the the realities, for him, was that Google, which originally was interested in employing him in the marketing department for its Book Search, ended up interviewing him 14 times.

In the end, Broughton was interviewed by people at Google's New York office who made it clear that the company was now wondering whether he could do hard-core sales.

After this interview, Broughton knew that his corporate daze was complete: "I decided I was going to quit before I was pushed (...) They told me they were sorry and that I could always come back. But I wanted the company expunged from my life. I wanted to scrub away the mask I had worn for them all these months. I uninstalled all the Google features on my computer and made Yahoo my default search engine."

Perhaps Broughton was just unsuited for the unsuited, but corporate, life at Google.

However, if you wander along to his conclusions about the direction of corporate life in general, you too might pause to put a word into the search box on your browser. The word might be "soul."

"HBS does not need to promise to 'educate leaders who make a difference in the world,'" writes Broughton. "It suggests that business, with its priorities and decision-making approach, has a right to impose its will on the world. But business needs to relearn its limits, and if the Harvard Business School let some air out of its own balloon, business would listen."

Broughton has a solution as simple as your IT guy has when your computer crashes and you have no idea how to fix it: "HBS need only promise to educate students in the processes and management of business. It would be a noble and accommodating goal and would dilute the perception of the school and its graduates as a megalomaniacal, self-sustaining elite."

Could anyone in the tech world be accused of wanting to create a "megalomaniacal, self-sustaining elite"? I will keep my subjective objectivity to myself on that question. But Broughton's strangely sobering book ends with the story of HBS's perhaps most famous student.

No, not Jeffrey Skilling of Enron. A chap called Robert McNamara.

McNamara was the U.S. Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. According to the journalist David Halberstam, McNamara had no trust for anyone "who did not speak his language of statistics and hard data."

Naturally, South Vietnamese officers would think of a number between 30 and 4,000 and declare it hard data--a small subterfuge that led McNamara to disbelieve anything real people such as his own country's soldiers told him when they returned from the battlefields. And, well, if you've watched the documentary The Fog Of War, things didn't really end all that well.

Perhaps Dan, Ahead of the Curve, and the discomforting Wall Street events of this week have made me wonder more than usual if there really is safety in numbers, even binary ones.

Oh, what am I worried about?

Harvard Business School bears no comparison to the tech world. No one goes into the tech business just to worship the numbers and make money without any thought as to what kind of world they're ushering in, do they?

Let's ignore Broughton's slightly portentous final question about his alma mater: "Has society allotted too much authority to a single, narcissistic class of spreadsheet makers and PowerPoint presenters?"

Thank you for walking with me. Do you fancy some sushi? Dan might be here again tonight. He might have other shirts.

 

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