The great Web “brain drain”

Is the Net sucking up corporate America's best and brightest -- or just its greediest?

Topics: Disney, CNN, Lou Dobbs,

Moneyline” host Lou Dobbs leaves CNN to join! Disney Web honcho Jake Winebaum leaves Mouseland to head up a new venture firm called Ecompanies! And one by one, Microsoft execs are leaving their posts to ponder start-up opportunities from the safe haven of their stock riches.

Will the last person to leave corporate America for the Net please turn out the lights?

This week’s headlines — like the Wall Street Journal’s Wednesday lead story, “As Web Riches Beckon, Disney Ranks Become a Poacher’s Paradise” — have made it sound like the ranks of big U.S. companies are being decimated by the online boom. But is there really a brain drain to the Web? Where exactly are the brains in this picture, anyway?

Dobbs, whose “Moneyline” is a big hit for CNN and who had been president of CNNfn, may well have a blast running the new outer-space information site But the site doesn’t exactly “leverage” Dobbs’ “personal brand” in the field of financial journalism. And his departure seems more the result of a personal feud with CNN president Rick Kaplan than any kind of profound conversion to the Net religion. One thing the Internet industry indubitably provides media veterans is a safe haven to run to in the event of a corporate falling-out: There’s always a site somewhere that needs a CEO.

Winebaum is leaving Disney, according to the Journal and other reports, because he wants to run his own company — and because he covets the big equity stakes only available in Internet start-up-land. All true, no doubt. But it’s also true that he leaves Disney at the very moment that it’s finally admitting the flaws in its misconceived strategy. The concept of aggregating all of the megacorporation’s Web properties under a single umbrella site with a new name doesn’t seem to be working any better for Disney than it did for Time Warner with Pathfinder.

Similarly, the most prominent defection in the recent wave of departures from Microsoft is that of Nathan Myhrvold, the company’s chief technology officer and Bill Gates’ advanced-technology guru. Myhrvold’s “leave of absence” is to allow him to pursue a bunch of “personal interests.”

At first glance you might think, gee, this has got to hurt the company, to be losing such a key figure. Then again, Myhrvold is the man at Microsoft whose job was to foresee things like the rise of the Internet — and he blew that in a big way. No doubt he is, as widely reported, brilliant. But it’s hard to see what Microsoft will lose with his departure — other than the occasional thumb-sucking white-paper memo that can be strategically leaked to the New Yorker.

Of course, there’s no question that the lure of fast riches in newborn Net companies is sucking some talent from the ranks of traditional companies into the so-called New Economy. But Myhrvold and the other Microsoft execs who’ve left in droves of late certainly aren’t chasing equity; their stock holdings are already ample enough to fund the purchase of private jets and personal islands. And Disney was presumably not paying Winebaum starvation wages.

What’s happening in the Net job economy today isn’t ultimately driven by money, but rather by what you might call the big-company bullshit factor.

The bullshit factor is, simply, a level of stupidity, bureaucracy, short-sightedness and paralysis that seems to vary in direct proportion to the size of an organization. (You could also call it the cluelessness quotient.) It’s nothing new, of course; but the Internet’s speed and tendency to flatten hierarchical communications have made the cluelessness increasingly visible. When big companies go on the Net, levels of bullshit that previously remained safely ensconced in closed meetings and boardrooms — where no one feels comfortable exposing the emperor’s new clothes — are suddenly revealed to the world.

This is simultaneously hilarious to watch and disheartening to be a part of (as the creators of the Cluetrain Manifesto have amusingly outlined). Young, smart people who have a choice — and today this particularly means software engineers — will instinctively shun the large organization for the small-company environment. There, they will work long hours and trade high salaries for stock stakes that could be worth a fortune — and could be worth nothing. But they will not have to spend half their lives in meaningless meetings and watch helplessly as projects and ideas disappear into the corporate maw, never to be seen again.

Now here’s the catch: All these smart young people filling out the ranks of small companies look over their shoulders, and what do they see? That long queue of executives and managers from the “big, dumb companies” — the very people they hoped to escape! — heading their way.

I have no doubt that there are plenty of execs in the Fortune 500 who would have a lot to offer a small company. I’ve never met Jake Winebaum, and for all I know his new “venture capital incubator” Ecompanies will mint a bevy of valuable infant start-ups. But the skills Winebaum and others in his shoes have honed in boardrooms at Disney-sized outfits are unlikely to matter in the Net marketplace.

The Internet’s biggest impact on business is to put front-line staff much more directly in touch with customers. Feedback from the Net is ferocious, immediate and impossible to ignore. Good managers at small Net companies know this in their bones — while at the big companies they’re still scratching their heads and wondering, “What are we supposed to do with all that e-mail?” As a result, the good managers at the big companies who “get” the Net gradually get frustrated with the roadblocks they face, and steadily defect — leaving their big company even more out of touch with what’s happening online.

Are the executives who are now bailing out of big media and technology companies for Net start-up-land in this group? Are they frustrated Net-savvy managers who’ve finally had enough? Or are they clueless corporate insiders who covet a fat wad of stock options in any old Internet “play” that will have them?

Probably, there are some of both. The trouble lies in telling them apart.

If you’re working at a Net start-up and you see one of these people heading your way, how can you know what you’re dealing with? Try sending him some e-mail. Watch to see whether she can connect her laptop to the Net. Or see if he’s changed the default home page on his browser.

These litmus tests may not be foolproof. But they’ll give you a fighting chance of telling whether you’re dealing with a real Internet savant or an opportunistic corporate carpetbagger.

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>