Scott Thompson’s resignation from the top job at Yahoo after falsely claiming to possess an undergraduate computer science degree will not go down as one of 2012’s best remembered technology stories. The bungled Facebook IPO, which occurred just weeks later in May 2012, ensured the press would move past “resumegate” almost as soon as the term appeared in connection to Yahoo. Nevertheless, I think it’s worth reflecting on the short-lived controversy—not to dwell on Thompson himself (whose reputation has suffered enough), but to consider what the event tells us about the different work cultures of Silicon Valley and Hollywood, as well as what it suggests about contemporary American culture at large.
Before we dig into any analysis, though, let’s review the basic story of what happened. In January 2012, Yahoo hired PayPal President Scott Thompson to replace Carol Bartz as CEO of Yahoo. Thompson’s appointment was meant to signal a renewed emphasis on technological innovation for a company that both Silicon Valley and Wall Street commentators believed had lost its way through an overemphasis on media assets and content (symbolized by longtime Hollywood executive Terry Semel’s reign as CEO of Yahoo from 2001 to 2007).
A mere four months later, however, an activist Yahoo shareholder revealed that Thompson misreported his credentials on the bio he presented to both PayPal and Yahoo (and that these publicly traded companies filed with the SEC). Thompson claimed he graduated from Stonehill College in Massachusetts in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and computer science. Thompson graduated from Stonehill but not in computer science. Computer science didn’t even become an undergraduate major until four years after Thompson graduated.
Thompson blamed the error on the head hunting firm that first brought him to PayPal. In response, the head hunting firm brought to light a 2005 e-mail in which Thompson explicitly stated he’d received the computer science degree. Thompson resigned as CEO days later. And then the Facebook IPO happened—or, some might say, didn’t.
Reflecting on Yahoo’s resumegate, I can’t help thinking about the culture contrast between the media and technology industries. It’s a contrast I observed up close—having lived for six years in LA and just spent the last year in Silicon Valley. Scott Thompson emphasized his vision for Yahoo as a technology company, but resumegate may have never occurred if he had embraced the Terry Semel view of Yahoo as a media company. The Hollywood film and television industries place a greater value on hustle and experience than credentials. As Patrick Goldstein pointed out last year, people without college educations occupy some of the industry’s most powerful positions. I’ve met more than one Ivy League graduate in LA whose voice turns to a whisper when they say where they went to school—as if any open acknowledgement of a Brown or Harvard degree might signal that they are self-entitled brats and lack the drive it takes to succeed in a dog-eat-dog business.
Of course, college dropouts also started some of the world’s most successful technology companies (Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook are three well-known examples—and if you’re willing to count Stanford PhD dropouts, then you can add Google to the list too). However, these companies employ thousands of engineering and computer science PhDs, some of whom have risen to Silicon Valley’s top executive ranks. Moreover, as Ken Auletta points out in his great book on the clash between old media and new media, there’s a culture of the “engineer as king” at Google and the other leading tech companies of the early-21st century. If you understand both code and the marketplace, if you can simultaneously explain why a product is needed and its engineering from top-to-bottom, then you can be a member of this club. Larry Page may even give you a few minutes of his time. And it’s in this industry culture that we can imagine Scott Thompson sitting at his keyboard and inflating his bio. I graduated with degrees in accounting and computer science. I’m a competent manager and an engineer. I’m one of you.
Yahoo’s resumegate speaks to the different industry cultures of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, but I would also argue it says something about our larger contemporary culture. In any number of jobs today, it would be handy to have that background in computer science. This is certainly true in humanities higher education—where one of the only growth areas for tenure-track jobs are positions that involve both the study and application of digital technologies. Wouldn’t it be great if, like the protagonists of The Matrix, we could instantly download how to program in Java, along with how to pilot a helicopter, into our brains? This sure would have saved me a lot of time over the last couple of years as I learned more about code through borrowing Dummies Guides from the library, watching online tutorials, and bombarding my father-in-law (a bona fide computer engineer and very patient man) with questions.
There’s no quick Matrix-style fix—and, even if there was, we should be skeptical about the payoff we would actually derive. In her recent book Programmed Visions: Software and Memory, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun incisively critiques the “empowerment” and “form of enlightenment” that contemporary culture associates with knowing how to code. It’s this vision of empowerment, enlightenment, and wealth the fuels the sense that we all could just be a few computer science classes away from founding the next billion-dollar tech company. At the same time, we should acknowledge that learning programming can be extremely rewarding—especially on a smaller scale, where the reward is knowing you’ve created something that someone else finds useful or the simple satisfaction of understanding a piece of syntax that six months earlier you found hopelessly confusing. Most often, I find the reward is spending even more time struggling in front of a computer because I’ve solved my initial problems and moved onto bigger, more complicated ones.
I’ve come to find computers more humbling than empowering. I suspect that Scott Thompson, in his own way, would agree with me there.