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How important is luck in high-tech business?

Is luck in part responsible for the success of high-tech people and companies?

After describing a particularly exciting consulting opportunity, a friend called me "lucky." That got me thinking: Is he right? Is luck a component in business success, or is it all about knowledge and experience. And if luck does play a role, how important is it? Can it be influenced, or is that taboo by definition?

To answer those questions I first did a little research. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines luck as "a: a force that brings good fortune or adversity, or b: the events or circumstances that operate for or against an individual."

Gee, "luck" sounds a lot like "competition" to me.

The dictionary was no help so I decided to look at the physics. It turns out that there's a probability function for every particle, atom or molecule. My favorite example of this comes from thermodynamics.

Every molecule that makes up the air in the room you're in right now can suddenly head for the doorway, leaving you to suffocate in a vacuum. Sure, that's highly unlikely, but it can happen. And if it did, I'd say you were pretty unlucky that day, wouldn't you?

From physics, I conclude that luck is essentially the effects of the probabilistic nature of matter and energy on our macroscopic, human world.

Now that we've got that figured out, let's see how it relates to the business of technology by looking at a few real-life situations.

Example 1:
When IBM needed an operating system for its new product - the IBM PC - the computer giant sent representatives to visit Gary Kildall of Digital Research. Unfortunately, Kildall was out flying his new plane. His wife, a lawyer, wouldn't sign IBM's non-disclosure agreement and snubbed the IBMers. In desperation, Big Blue hired a software geek and his little company, which had never developed an operating system before. The geek was Bill Gates and the company was Microsoft.

Was that luck - bad for Kildall and good for Gates? It sure wasn't luck that caused Gates to request nonexclusivity and a small royalty fee for each PC instead of the usual development fee.

Example 2:
Blind-sided by the PC revolution and unable to stem a tidal wave of red ink, the world's second largest computer company - Digital Equipment - was ultimately carved up and sold in pieces.

Was Ken Olsen, the company's CEO who famously said "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home" unlucky or blinded by success and ego?

Example 3:
Did luck bring Steve Jobs back to Apple in its acquisition of NeXT? We all know how that went for Apple.

Example 4:
Leaving the tech world for just a minute, Gordon Bowker and Jerry Baldwin sold the assets and brand of Starbucks to Howard Schultz for $3.8 million. The coffee empire is now valued at $13 billion.

Were Bowker and Baldwin unlucky or was Schultz a visionary?

Thinking of all these examples, here's the big question: If events had gone differently, would these people and companies somehow eventually turn out the same? For example, what if Kildall wasn't out flying his plane and got the IBM deal, but Microsoft still became a software juggernaut? Then luck wasn't a factor.

But what if events went down differently and that ultimately changed everyone's fortunes? For example, what if Kildall wasn't out flying his plane, got the IBM deal, and Microsoft never became a software juggernaut? Then luck was a factor.

Unfortunately, we'll never know.

Hey, not every question has an answer.

Still, in my experience, passion, intelligence, hard work, perseverance and timing play a bigger role in success than luck. I guess a positive, optimistic attitude doesn't hurt either. But if you want to hedge your bets, get a good luck charm. It can't hurt.

Good luck.