A CEO Search Result: Negroponte Leaves One Laptop Per Child

   
   
   
   
   

When I read Steve Hamm's Businessweek article Negroponte Seeks a Laptop CEO, I was not surprised to hear that Nicholas Negroponte has finally realized that he's not implementing the One Laptop Per Child vision effectively:

negroponte
Ready to exit OLPC in 2008?
He says the organization has been operating "almost like a terrorist group, doing almost impossible things" for three years. Now, he says, it needs to be managed "more like Microsoft."

"I am not a CEO," says Negroponte. "Management, administration, and details are my weaknesses. I'm much better at the vision, big-picture side of the house."

I saw that way back in 2006, hence the reason I started OLPC News. Today that's evident in the gaping difference between his vision of millions of laptops in children's hands worldwide in 2007, and the actual reality that OLPC has sold 500,000 laptops at most, manufactured half, but only deployed around 150,000 to date.

What did surprise me is how Negroponte expects to rescue his grand dream from becoming the next Betamax - a great platform that lost out to nimbler, more responsive and collaborative competition. Nicholas Negroponte is looking for a new CEO for OLPC.

But instead of looking for an expert in primary education who can implement a strong global sales plan for the XO laptop, or even a technology expert, with deep ties to the Silicon Valley companies who can infuse OLPC with new purpose and partnerships, Negroponte is looking for a replica of himself:

Negroponte is looking for somebody with the leadership profile similar to that of Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the UN, who would "view the world as a mission, not a market."
And what will be the results if Negroponte hires a MiniMe to be the OLPC CEO? Sadly, not much, as the current problems will persist. OLPC will still lack a credible sales pitch to Ministries of Education, it will still lack any semblance of a realistic implementation plan, and it will continue to sputter along on just enough geek goodwill and cute kid pictures to seem relevant.

More interestingly, I say that this is the first step in the departure of Nicholas Negroponte himself. No matter if Negroponte does find a Kofi-esque leader, or an actual CEO who can execute, both would need to radically change OLPC to make it relevant. And neither would play second fiddle to Negroponte's sizable ego. Or put up with his Negropontisms making them look the fool.

No, there can only be one head chief in the kitchen. So no matter if Negroponte intends for his CEO search to be his exit or not, if we want OLPC to rebound, it has to be. And without a MiniMe.

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36 Comments

I think Negroponte should stay - he's brought this project alive. CEOs manage, and if Negroponte's ego is one more thing to manage, they will.

**But instead of looking for an expert in primary education who can implement a strong global sales plan for the XO laptop**

Darn. Because if he were looking for that, I'd send in my application because that pretty much describes me.

Ouch!
Negroponte is the face and voice of OLPC, even if a new CEO became the new "Head chief", Negroponte would need to stay on as "Visioneer" and spokes person. Without him OLPC may take a hit no CEO could salvage.

Wayan your post contains a very inaccurate title. Negroponte is NOT leaving OLPC. According to the article "he's searching for a chief executive while he continues in the role of chairman."

Negroponte will stay in the foundation, but now we will probably have someone else to blame.

Alexandre,

Since I've been spot on with Negroponte since 2006, I'll stand by my title: this is the first step to a inevitable Negroponte departure from running OLPC.

As Chairman, his only OLPC connection would be in his bio. He'd get to add it to his stock claim to co-founding MIT, Wired, and being a board member at Motorola.

Personally, I think it would be very healthy for Negroponte and OLPC to disassociate so it can get past founder-itis. His big-picture dreaming has left a huge gaping void between the perceptions he sold and the reality of XO implementations.

OLPC should be focused on improving Sugar, selling XO's (to anyone who will buy them), and implementing large scale XO distributions, as the recent re-org he did shows. Now hire a strong CEO to run the show, hire four aggressive VP's to run each segment, and get out of the way.

Only then will we have a decent movement.


I agree that Mary Lou will be more missed than NN in the OLPC.

OLPC desperately needs a new manager, ceo or whoever can get the job done of getting the xo in the hands of children. But I feel the personality and contacts of NN have been fundamental on connecting people to the foundation cause. OLPC needs someone with Niks personality to make noise, call attention and connect industries.

I only hope NN will step out of the way in managing terms but will keep his role as spokesperson and evangelizer.

"Since I've been spot on with Negroponte since 2006, I'll stand by my title: this is the first step to a inevitable Negroponte departure from running OLPC."

Not running the operation is different from leaving altogether. So while you may be right that he will someday step back from operations, that doesn't change the fact that your title is wrong today.

Quote:


* "I am not a CEO. Management, administration, and details are my weaknesses."

To that list I would add a few other things: designing computers; building computers; writing software; working with others; setting realistic expectations; listening to criticism; soliciting feedback; maintaining a grip on reality.

The real screamer comes when Double-N says his ideal candidate for someone to run OLPC would be Kofi Annan. Right, because there's a guy with a real nitty-gritty grasp of how to run a company. Uh-huh. Loads of tech experience. Honestly, I blew miso soup out my nose and onto the keyboard of my MacBook Air when I read that one.

Source:

http://fakesteve.blogspot.com/2008/03/when-going-gets-tough.html

Wayan,

"I'll stand by my title: this is the first step to a inevitable Negroponte departure from running OLPC."

An 'inevitable Negroponte departure from running OLPC" is what Negroponte himself suggests in the article you source - no problem here. However, your title 'making' it as "Negroponte Leaves One Laptop Per Child" is just factually wrong - I don't understand why you have a problem admitting it as it's pretty obvious...

Yup, I think I understand the strangely worded title now, but I must admit I think it's rather misleading. I guess it worked for you though, since you tricked me into reading your opinion piece thinking it was breaking news.

As a nonprofit, the highest authority within OLPC is the board. Oh, to be a fly on the wall during their deliberations.

Typically, the CEO doesn't just wake up one day and say "I think I'll step down as CEO". There's usually a lot of discussion amongst board members that results in the abdication. And remaining as Chairman is generally a fig leaf that give some deniability to the proposition that the CEO has been fired. After a decent interval, the Chairman resigns to "pursue other interests".

If he remains active as Chairman trying to pull the reins on the new CEO the board will either be drawn into the issue by the CEO's threat to resign, or the board members will resign. There's no stock to lose value and every board member has the same vote (no stockholders voting their shares and thus giving a few wealthy people the final say).

Who's on the board now?

Well I am not surprised, just like I was not surprised when Mary Lou departed. They did a good job, now their jobs are done. Mary Lou took the technology from nothing to production, Nicholas Negroponte took the vision from nothing to reality. Now it is a totally different set of problems to be solved which needs a new team. My tip for the top would be Tomi Davis, currently CEO of OLPC Nigeria.

Rather than sitting quietly in the back of the boadroom I would like to see Nicolas Negroponte set up a high level association promoting all the low cost Linux based laptops and furthering the vision of 1:1 computing. This would separate the vision and goals from the manufacturing and logistics of just one piece of hardware.
Just a thought.

I have often wondered what NN contributed to the OLPC. He had vision, contacts, and could talk people into the mission (charisma?).

However, it is people like Mary-Lou who did the actual CE of designing the hardware and software, and talking to the factories, and shipping a product. NN confessed that Mary-Lou ran the OLPC on her own for the first year (and it nearly killed her).

As a result, my impression has always been that NN was the spokeperson&evangelist&strategist but not the real CEO. But I will certainly be wrong in this.

Winter

Isn't this a case of patterns found in history repeating, similar to the formerly troubled but now successful Apple computers? The man (I believe John Scully) whom trained Steve Jobs in business wrote a book about some of the history.
I bought an XO using GOGO and can't get it back from one of my 16 grandchildren. If I could purchase more XOs for their cost (not the ebay rate), I'd buy another 15. Apple demonstrated that a computer organization doesn't have to be the only game in town to be successful and to help improve our world.

Negroponte's actions are in full accordance with previous behaviour: he did exactly the same with Media Lab Europe and Media Lab Asia, his most recent spectacular failures.


It is common knowledge that the quirky professor has a grand vision...that very seldom matches reality. His penchant for over-promising and under-delivering always produces the same results: an abandoned project and a lot of disappointed, angry investors. It happened in Asia and it happened in Europe. Negroponte & sidekick Walter Bender are not new to the scene:

"One of its biggest research projects (MLE) was a sensor to read people’s minds. But MediaLab Europe (MLE), a project that cost the Irish taxpayer almost €40m, must have thought the Irish government was already telepathic. It refused to tell ministers how many people it employed, what they were paid, or to provide audited accounts."

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/10/04/mit_media_lab_ireland/


Can anyone spot the pattern?

:-)

The old dance begins:

"Five chief executives in five years, only two of which were ever formally appointed, made it extremely difficult for the lab to to attract funding, become self-sustaining or deliver world class research."

http://www.independent.ie/national-news/hitech-flop-costs-us-35m-237554.html

This is the beginning of the end for OLPC. Money is running out, Quanta is not very happy and sales are not going anywhere...time for an early exit. The project will last a few more months, after which Prof. Negroponte will claim he "succeeded by having failed" (whatever that means!) and will move on to the next sucker.

Supporters will silently hug their non-working XO wondering where everything went wrong, while Negroponte travels first class to a new business meeting where his next great vision will be expained to eager executives.

@Pete Walker:
"The man (I believe John Scully) whom trained Steve Jobs in business wrote a book about some of the history."

Yes, Scully all but destroyed Apple. Apple stood up from the grave the moment Jobs entered the building as a consultant. The funny thing was, that from that moment on, nobody at Apple listened to Scully anymore. Jobs was the "CEO" without an official position.

What can we learn from Apple's history? That it depends?

Apple's Scully was a very good manager (of Pepsi), and still made all the wrong decissions when leading Apple. On the other hand, Jobs' relation with reality has been questioned time and again, and he made Apple a market leader TWICE in different markets.

So what to say about NN stepping down? I am not even sure what function he is stepping down from.

But who can predict the future? I remember a specific poster predicting in January 11 2007 that no XO's would ever be sold because:
"Why would anyone pay $150 for what is essentially a re-packaged 10-year old machine? (in terms of computer power/storage/software)."
(If you want to know, use Google)

And guess what? She/He still predicts the imminent demise of the OLPC and will probably go on with it until we are all dead.

Winter

Unfortunately, the new CEO will inherit an organization that is passed its prime. He/she will have to repair the business processes, please disgruntled suppliers and buyers, deal with bad PR, and have none of the luxuries that Negroponte experienced - among them a blind and praising media/public. For all intents and purposes, the OLPC has "jumped the shark".

"Naturally, it failed. Nothing is that independent, especially an organization backed by a socialist government and staffed by highly individualistic industry visionaries from around the world. Besides, altruism has a credibility problem in an industry that thrives on intense commercial competition.

"By the end of the Center's first year, Papert had quit, so had American experts Nicholas Negroponte and Bob Lawler. It had become a battlefield, scarred by clashes of management style, personality, and political conviction. It never really recovered."

--1983, Dakar, Senegal. http://www.olpcnews.com/people/negroponte/olpc_history_senegal_failure.html

Is Bender going to distance himself next?

@Commenters - great points all around. I was really enjoying reading all the thoughts. Two thoughts thoughts of mine are:

I still have my Newton. I hope that OLPC is not the next Newton, a rabidly loyal ever dwindling fanbase if the project dies. One advantage is that the open source platform vs. Apple's. Basically I don't want to see it die.

@Wayan (and commenters) - you have a quote that everyone here has missed, NN said he wants to see OLPC be run like Microsoft.

Reading into that a little what I think he means is two fold. First, OLPC needs more of a business focus, with achievable goals and strong leadership. Fine we can all agree with that.

Secondly, The Gates Foundation, is probably also bleeding into NN's thoughts, where the people who run that organization run it as a business. They demand reporting and follow up and are trying to change the non-profits they donate/grant money too.

Having oversight and accountability is what turns organizations around.

Dave,

I would hope Negroponte is thinking like Gates Foundation, but I fear he's more thinking Microsoft Corporation, as in putting XP on the XO so he can sell more laptops easier to those that balk at Sugar.

At that point, OLPC will not be an education project at all. Just a laptop project. Some would argue that was the motive all along.

Thinking about it more, I like your Newton reference. OLPC's fate would be more Newton than Betamax if it didn't scale - there would still be a rabid following and a decent technology that spawns others.

Wayan wrote:

"...I fear he's more thinking Microsoft Corporation, as in putting XP on the XO so he can sell more laptops easier to those that balk at Sugar."

You're absolutely right, Wayan:

"OLPC will hand more of the development and support of its XO laptop and its core software to technology companies, including Red Hat [snip] and Microsoft, which is just now putting the finishing touches on a version of Windows for the XO machine."

http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/mar2008/tc2008035_429837.htm

Eh, give Dear Leader a little credit. Nicholas Negroponte got Big Important Companies interested in this market. He also assembled a fine team of engineers and designers and delivered a sweet little machine. OLPC did a decent job of designing computers, building computers and writing software, despite Sugar's flaws.

FSJ and Irvin are a little too harsh. Then again, we all should be used to that from these two.

Mind, this doesn't excuse Negroponte's false promises. He claimed engineering miracles and choruses of angels and 150 million happy connected children. Nor is his previous employment history magically irrelevant. He's ego, vision and courage and not much else, but he can still sell a good idea.

I hope they don't dump Sugar, Bitfrost or any of OLPC's custom Linux distribution. Red Hat could fold the whole thing into Global Desktop giving it portability and active maintenance.

I want there to be an XO-2. From somebody. Someone needs to be making cheap, durable REAL COMPUTERS with unique features for children AND adults. OLPC and Asus are the first to not totally screw it up.

@Wayan - In researching my new OLPC article I found, what you already knew, Apple offered their OS and were turned down. Reason- Not an open source OS. I applaud Microsoft for keeping at it. Let them do exactly what they should as big rich company with smart people, devote a team to hack the OLPC with Windows XP. Having more people use the machine and support the effort will help.

It might not be the idealist dream, but I saw another quote that Gates bashed the machine a few days ago and Wozniak supported it the next. Keep people talking about, people working on it and it will not be the Newton. It will live.

Source: http://www.builderau.com.au/news/soa/Steve-Wozniak-100-laptop-deserves-a-Nobel-Prize/0,339028227,339286443,00.htm

@J. McNair - the X0-2 - Isn't that what Pixel Qi is building with the $75 laptop?

Here's my article that will be going to press later this month, but gets published early online:

http://www.dkworldwide.com/techlife/archives/2008/03/06/olpc-xo-laptop-saves-the-day/trackback/

I say Wayan Vota for CEO of OLPC.

Seriously, Wayan, you seemed to have had your head screwed on straight the whole time.

While I do think NickNeg had a very positive effect on the world regarding the whole OLPC thing, I do think his also had some negative effects and I'm happy he's stepping down as CEO. If he does leave, I hope it's sooner than later. I think OLPC needs someone with the enthusiasm of Neg, but the smarts of a real salesperson--that is to say, polite, caring, interested in making deals and moving product--and by product I mean more than just laptops, but the whole thing: the laptops and the intent for education behind it.

That all sounds like Wayan Vota to me :)

You're not the first person to suggest I should work for OLPC, and I'll admit that it would be a dream to be on their implementation team, but I am not the Jedi they are looking for.

@Everyone - sorry I couldn't resist.

@ThePete - So you Vote for Vota.

@Wayan - So you Veto the Vota.

Again, my apologies.

@Dave Kaufman
*cough* *cough* Man those puns were dreadful, I'm dying over here ;-)

Finally!

How long did he plan on smothering this project?

Now that Intel has Atom and OLPC does not have Negroponte (childish, self-promoting,n man-child), can Intel come back to the party with a 1.8 Ghz 3-watt chip?

http://www.engadget.com/tag/silverthorn/

Nathan,

"Now that Intel has Atom and OLPC does not have Negroponte"

Well, Wayan's speculation notwithstanding, there's no sign of Negroponte's departure so you're wrong on the second account, although with the XO now in full production things have changed (don't they always) and reorganization is obviously needed.

It's also quite safe to say that, if it wasn't for OLPC XO and the shift in the notebook market it caused, Intel would still be looking to adding another super-duper-MHz 'n-core' processor to its lineup rather then a low-powered one...

"can Intel come back to the party with a 1.8 Ghz 3-watt chip?"

You mean non-profit one like OLPC. Not likely. However it will have no choice in being part, even with reduced profit, of the movement towards XO-like notebooks/laptops. After all, Intel is not the only game in town and AMD, VIA and ARMS are not standing still and, additionally, have quite a bit of experience in the mobile computer/phone market. Interesting times ahead...

It may be that after all the gas-baggery by Dr. Negroponte passes the great accomplishment of OLPC may be to reset the low end of the PC price spectrum to $100. Maybe even $75 if Mary Lou Jeppeson's project pans out.

While that's quite clearly the direction the market was heading it was being dragged in that direction by the consumer with the suppliers kicking and screaming every inch of the way. By removing any doubt about the marketability of computers producible at this price-point Dr. Negroponte can legitimately lay claim to being responsible for the production of computers affordable by a much greater percentage of the human race.

Great, now the world is using this announcement to show to the public:
* How much of a big failure the OLPC is.
* How the project is desperate for Microsoft's help.
* How disorganized and unprofessional you are.

The target is not "producing cheap laptops".

My opinion is that Negroponte should change his mind back, and use the publicity to show to the world how wrong he was in leaving the chair. To show that OLPC is much more than "a cheap laptop company".

People just want to read the headlines and say "I knew it was going to fail". Before saying that is a failure, the world has to read: http://laptop.org/children/learning/


André Caldas.

@DaveKaufman Ohhhh, the pun, the pun!

@Wayan, well, you'll always be Mace Windu to me! (You even have a little friend with green ears!)

Oh and not to poke holes in your theory regarding Nick leaving OLPC, but here's a post on Engadget I just came across:

http://www.engadget.com/2008/03/10/negroponte-says-role-at-olpc-not-changing-windows-coming-soon

In that post they report that Nick isn't leaving and isn't even changing roles, really--just altering his title a tad.

Re: Andre's comment:

I'm not sure I get why people insist on thinking $200 isn't cheap for a laptop. Sure, we, in the 1st World, had to drop twice that to get one, but come on--even $400 is a cheap laptop! Especially for what it can do and how big it is and for how little power it pulls. I get that Andre is just saying what others will say about the XO--and he's right--but it still bugs me how a great thing like OLPC has been slammed for being just that--a great thing.

We live in such a cynical world--it's no wonder so much of it sucks.

Especially Dave Kaufman's puns. ;)

How could you be so wrong? Nicholas Negroponte is chairman of OLPC and remains chairman of OLPC, nothing changes for him. There is no CEO of OLPC today, Nicholas Negroponte is looking for the first CEO of the OLPC, he is not leaving.

CEO's job could be to commercialize the OLPC project. Sell tons of it all over the world in commercial 200 dollar versions and hopefully bankrupt Intel and other actual terrorist IT industry monopolies on their definition of Moores law within a year.

Intel does not want cheaper laptops with longer battery life. Intel Atom devices I saw at CeBIT costs 900 dollars and up and still consume quite a lot of power. Absolutely no change yet from ULV.

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