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Just because you're an innovative tech industry heavyweight doesn't mean you can't throw a good fit when you don't get your way
"With great power comes great responsibility," according to the tagline of the Spider-Man mythos. But great power also brings with it great entitlement -- and can also result in terrible temper tantrums when things don't go your way. Silicon Valley execs and kingmakers are definitely no exception, and many of their most excessive blowups have become the stuff of tech industry legend.
As a young man, Steve Jobs was well-known for his temper tantrums. They got him moved to the night shift at Atari; according to early Apple employee Andy Hertzfield, "his spontaneous temper tantrums and his proclivity to tell everyone exactly what he thought" cowed and alienated co-workers. One of the most petty -- but apparently representative -- fits he threw involved the color of the vans owned by NeXT. But Jobs reportedly mellowed a bit as he got older, or at least got better at keeping his spontaneous outbursts of anger short and to the point rather than letting them become full-on blowups.
In the 21st century, Bill Gates has remade himself into a beloved philanthropist. But 20th century Bill Gates was a terror to friend and foe alike: he was known to get into shouting matches with CEOs of rival tech companies and to belittle his own direct reports at Microsoft by calling their ideas "stupid." But perhaps the sorest victim of Gates's temper tantrums was Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who said that dealing with Gates's frequent explosions was "like being in hell." Things got particularly bad between them when Gates tried to squeeze Allen out of the company just after Allen was diagnosed with cancer.
It was one of the most famous temper tantrums ever described in official court documents. In a lawsuit over whether Microsoft could use noncompete clauses to prevent its employees from defecting to Google, Mark Lucovsky described what happened when he told Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer he was planning on doing just that: Ballmer threw a chair across the room and shouted, about Eric Schmidt, "I'm going to [bleep]ing bury that guy, I have done it before, and I will do it again. I'm going to [bleep]ing kill Google." Ballmer also said that "Google's not a real company. It's a house of cards." This was in 2004. The house hasn't collapsed yet.
The Oracle founder gave a speech calling proponents of cloud computing "nitwits" in 2010 (not mentioning the fact that he had been pushing a similar idea in the mid '90s) and demanded that his neighbors cut down some majestic redwoods because they blocked the view from his party house. But temper tantrums don't get more public than the ones you send in writing to journalists at major publications: when Philip Elmer-Dewitt brought up Ellison's known intraoffice romances in an article about Mark Hurd, Ellison sent an email with the subject line "Hey Jerk" in which he called Elmer-Dewitt a "scum bag."
This may be the tech temper tantrum on this list with the most significant real-world consequences: in 2007, eBay CEO Meg Whitman got into a shoving match with Young Mi Kim, a subordinate whom Whitman felt had underprepared her for an upcoming interview with Reuters. (The interview was conducted in Second Life, for extra weird points.) Kim and Whitman reached an out-of-court settlement on the matter, but word of it got out, to Whitman's embarrassment, during her unsuccessful 2010 California gubernatorial campaign. To be fair, Whitman lost that election by more than 12 percentage points, so maybe this one incident wasn't the different between victory and defeat.
Not all tantrums take the form of yelling or screaming; as any family therapist will tell you, sometimes anger manifests itself as a cruel, implacable silent treatment. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has famously said that people need to worry less about the theoretically public information about them that can become a lot more concretely public thanks to Google Search's awesome prowess. When CNet Googled up a whole bunch of Schmidt's own personal information, the CEO decreed that no Google employee would be allowed to speak to anyone at CNet for an entire year.
In August 2013, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong had a conference call with 1,000+ Patch employees -- the day after he told analysts that Patch would soon see huge layoffs. Tensions were running high, but listeners were still shocked when Armstrong abruptly fired Patch creative director Abel Lenz, apparently for taking pictures of the staffers on the call at AOL HQ -- something he routinely did during such meetings. It later emerged that Armstrong may have fired Lenz for his role in the botched Patch 2.0 redesign, but it was still a very public and uncontrolled display of anger.
In 2005, Firefox was only a few months old, and the Mozilla Foundation's Mitchell Baker and John Lilly went to pay Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang a visit to discuss possible partnerships. The meeting didn't go so well. Yang arrived 45 minutes late -- for a meeting that was only supposed to be an hour long -- and immediately started yelling at the Mozilla reps. Yang had paid good money to big ISPs to get them to bundle Yahoo IE browser toolbars with their services, and now people were just going to start downloading Mozilla for free and using its default search engine, Google. In retrospect, it was a sign that Yang realized how dependent Yahoo was on browser makers and other intermediaries.
Zynga is on the receiving end of plenty of loathing from gamers and tech observers alike, and it seems that company founder Mark Pincus heartily reciprocates the disdain for the values they hold dear. "I don't [bleep]ing want innovation," he told an employee during one diatribe. "You're not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers." Zynga's former GM, when asked if he'd heard such rants, said "Yes, too many to count." Pincus was eased out of the company CEO job earlier this year.
The TechCrunch founder has never shied away from fights and controversy, but he met his biggest challenge in May of 2011 when he announced that he planned to help manage a fund that would invest in companies TechCrunch would cover, with a promise of "transparency" that would trump old-fashioned journalistic ethics. The reaction among his fellow tech journalists was swift and scathing, which resulted in an epic blog post/temper tantrum entitled "The tech press: Screw them all." Arrington was forced out of TechCrunch six months later, though he eventually returned as a writer.