Introverts in High Tech Management

Introverts may be better as high-tech employees than extroverts. (Extroverts may be better as high-touch employees, but that’s not for here.) Introverts may spend less time with people and more time with everything else.

I don’t like people very much. I’m polite to them. But I don’t want to socialize. There are people who specialize in being socialites. Many of them are very good at that. Why should I compete on their turf when they’re already better and I can do something else? What else? Answer: Anything that doesn’t directly depend on personal relationships.

That’s plenty. And the increasing utility, pervasiveness, and sophistication of high technology assures that there will be plenty to do for a lifetime. And, evidently, not too many people are available now to develop and exploit high tech to the level users already demand.

Examples of highly visible introverts being productive and generating value are available. Google was started by two friends who became the top executives and one is an introvert. Craigslist was started by an introvert who hired another introvert as its chief executive officer. Both firms are very successful — financially profitable, as reputable brands, supporting nonprofit work, and in offering services people like to use.

Google’s cornerstone service is search. The founders, or one of them, wrote a paper for university studies, proposing a better way to get good results. They implemented that method or one very much like it for Google search. Most other search systems disappeared and all of their modern-day competitors combined are less in worldwide demand than is Google search, even a competitor with vast capital resources (Microsoft’s Bing), mainly because consumers generally prefer Google’s search service to those of its rivals (as I do). While Google or, more recently, its parent company has many services, the search service, supported through advertising, was reportedly its first source of profit and apparently remains a large source of its profit. The number of searchers is large.

Google depends, of course, on programmers. Programmers themselves are often nerds, socially awkward but technically proficient, and probably many of the good ones anywhere are introverts. Google used to hire mainly from Stanford University, from which the founders had graduated; lately, Google has hired many who have had no college. Those without college but doing college-level work are probably self-taught. People who are primarily self-taught at a stage in their lives when most people are in college (or high school) are more likely to be self-aware and less accepting of outsiders’ guidance, and that describes introverts.

Google search has had very little advertising for itself. It has had some recently; I saw a large prominent outdoor electronic billboard, but that was after the two founders were no longer serving as top day-to-day executives and had handed that control over to a new chief executive. Earlier, I saw a campaign in a subway system, focused on privacy when using the search service, probably running for about a month, but that seemed in my judgment to be a campaign led by public relations people to address a short-term concern about Google’s reputation and not a campaign led by marketing people to acquire more users, and thus was probably out of character for, and an exception likely approved by, the founders.

Google search is paid for by, and is profitable through, advertising it carries. Probably, only a small percentage of visitors find the advertising worthwhile, maybe three in a hundred. So, Google depends on having lots of visitors, and lots of repeat visitors. It also depends on the visitors who look at the ads finding benefit in them, so they’ll look again.

It gets plenty of visitors and gets them to come back by the intuitiveness of use and the quality of search results, especially the results at the top. That’s easy to say and lots of companies say something like it. But it’s hard to do, as many companies notice. Intuitiveness requires that no explanation be needed. Almost everyone should be able to use the site and get productive results without being told how. Advanced techniques should be hidden one click away, so no one feels overwhelmed before they start.

For quality of results, Google search famously runs off of an algorithm, an automated procedure for finding what a user wants and ranking it by likelihood of interest to the user. When it places some websites at or near the top of the list of results, other websites don’t get that coveted position. The owners of some of those other websites then try to get ranked higher. Some do so through means Google likes, such as by writing content that more users trust. But some do so through means that Google dislikes. When that leads to results pages that are not pleasing to users, Google risks losing visitors to other search engines. So, Google updates its algorithm. This takes a lot of research and programming. Google invests in that.

Advertising is made useful to viewers, and therefore profitable, by not accepting ads just because someone agreed to pay the highest price. Some ads don’t need action and the advertisers will pay Google anyway, but probably most ads are pay-per-click, so Google gets paid only if someone clicks on the ad through to the advertiser’s website, and the advertiser wants that only if a reasonable percentage of people who get to that website buy enough to pay for the ads for the people who clicked but didn’t buy. So Google demands that the website be relevant to the ad text and that the ad be relevant to the page where it will appear, and that page is defined by the search terms that generated it. Google may refuse to run an ad anymore because it hasn’t attracted clicks, in order to persuade the advertiser to write a better ad. The result is that ads are likely to generate some benefit for advertisers. That generally means sales, and with most sales customers tend to be happy, so ads that work also work well for the customers. Ads can run not only on search pages but also on other websites (I was accepting ads like that for a while on my websites and I earned a little, although below the threshold for paying me). Those ads also are selected by Google for relevance, with the website owner allowed to exclude some types of ads. This is applied to work with small amounts of money; an advertiser may bid around a nickel to run an ad and the bid may be accepted; clicks may be as low as a penny each. The system is automated; advertisers can click to do what they want without having to talk with a sales representative. Not having to deal with a sales representative is not having to deal much with people and introverts like that. It wouldn’t have been the only reason for the design, the availability of technology being another, but a founder’s introversion may have helped bring small advertisers and small websites into Google’s ecosystem and earn more profit for advertisers and for Google.

In short, Google has weak external marketing and strong internal product development. That seems to reflect the introversion of someone at the top. And Google has been successful for decades. So has its parent company, albeit only for its shorter lifetime.

Craigslist offers a website that is something like a neighborhood bulletin board of many people’s offerings. It’s possible to use it for years for multiple purposes without becoming aware that Craigslist charges any money for anything. Yet, according to an outside analyst, it was on track to get $100 million in revenue in one year. Not bad.

It offers pages for many locations. If you start at the home page, you can quickly go to a section for a nation, state or province, or city you’re interested in. Then, you can look in whatever category you like. So, if you’re in Moscow or are thinking of going there, you might zoom in on Moscow and then for computers to see if a neighbor has a computer for sale that you might buy. Craigslist doesn’t get any of that money or charge a fee to promote what someone has or to let you search for it or contact the seller. There are a few categories in a few localities for which it charges. Most of the website is free.

Even when it covers a whole state, it might open a new market within that state. It can do that by identifying another community within the state that likely has enough Craigslist users that collecting all the listings and taking them out of statewide listings would concentrate the listings in one place convenient to the users and lead to an increase in local usage.

Reportedly, they don’t advertise in their new market. They don’t even write a letter to a mayor. The just wait for users in that state who live in or near that particular community, newly added to the list, to notice that it’s listed, then click on it.

I don’t know much about the programming. They’ve said they’re more interested in suggestions from users than those from vendors, but that’s likely more or less true of many companies. But it’s likely relevant that the founder reportedly spends a lot of time as a customer service representative, thus exposing him to users’ complaints. Users who complain and then find their complaints helpfully resolved probably remain as users. The emphasis on monitoring customer service seems an aspect of introversion.

eBay acquired an ownership stake in Craigslist and set about creating a competitor, but it does not seem to have done well. eBay in general is a successful company and likely has ownership support, skillful management and employees, and ample capital, but still is not good as a head-to-head competitor to Craigslist.

Craigslist, too, looks like a case of weak external marketing and strong internal product development, producing a successful outcome that is sustained over decades.

Both companies, for maintenance and growth in their user bases, depend mostly on their websites being what people want to come back to, word of mouth, and habit. Websites being what people want to come back to requires internal development and, when contrary forces make the websites not what people want to use, staying ahead of the problem. Word of mouth tends to be trustworthy and free. Habit tends to be free, and trustworthy to the habituated. Most businesses wish they had more of all of that. These sites have it almost to the exclusion of advertising.

Most software systems rely on internal product development, but many are not strong in that area. Example: A health care database management system provider, whose important product I have used as a patient and is meant for use also by doctors, allied health care providers, and administrators, appears to have not much interest in improving its usability. Reputedly, it or one of its competitors is weak in this area because it’s expensive for a health care institution to switch to another after having already paid billions of dollars, with a “b”, for their investment. I don’t know about its leaders or their personalities, but to be strong in anything usually takes effort. Introverts are likely to put their effort into internal structures and then be stronger there.

Extroverts may be better at selling, necessary when the product is so similar to a competitor’s that the personal touch is the key to building the business. Perhaps a company prefers that everyone it hires be extroverted, so they’ll promote the company. But I’ve also heard that extroverted truck drivers tend to have more accidents. In some positions, extroversion may have too high a cost. In some, it may not matter; and in some, introversion may be better.

Maybe the case for introverts’ value is easily made.