Look at media reports of top tech CEOs and you'll see a whole lot of pixels and column inches devoted to very successful college drop-outs. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg is the latest in a list of high-profile tech executives who have opted not to finish their degrees.
The list includes industry greats Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. An ambitious young person keen to run their own tech company one day might look at that line up of highly accomplished non-graduates and conclude they can safely follow the urging of college skeptics such as PayPal founder Peter Thiel and drop out.
Not so fast, writes Carolyn Duffy Marsan recently for ComputerWorld New Zealand. After combing through the educational background on 50 top tech industry CEOs she came to a very different conclusion. She writes:
The myth of the brilliant Ivy League student who starts a business in his dorm room, drops out of school, and goes on to run a successful high-tech start-up for many decades to come is essentially just that: a myth. Despite a few high-profile exceptions–such as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates–the vast majority of CEOs running successful US high-tech firms have college degrees, and more than half have at least one graduate degree.
We analyzed the educational backgrounds of the 50 highest paid and most powerful CEOs in the US tech industry, and what we found is that only three of them–Michael Dell of Dell Computers, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, and Larry Ellison at Oracle–are college dropouts.
To sum up the drift of the analysis, the article quotes Jerry Luftman, managing director of the Global Institute for IT Management (who holds a doctorate in Information Systems). He says: "I've met as many successful tech CEOs who have dropped out college as I've met folks who have won the lottery."
Duffy Marsan isn't the only person questioning the myth of the highly successful tech dropout. VC Brad Feld has also urged aspiring entrepreneurs to stay in school, get their degrees, and use college as a sort of playpen in which to safely experiment and learn about being an entrepreneur.
But could a myth that's so widespread with so many prominent counter-examples really have no basis in reality, at least when it comes to running a tech company you started?
College is, after all, highly structured, demanding students' submission to rules, procedures, and accepted authority. It doesn't seem like too huge of a leap to imagine that those who chafe at this situation might be particularly well suited to the uncharted waters that one must venture into to start a company.
The self-confidence required to walk away from your education might also be a sign of the sort of bold, self-directed mindset being an entrepreneur demands. And school itself has been charged with being a creativity killer. On the other hand, the myth of Mark Zuckerberg and company has no doubt lured many a less gifted young person to walk away from what would have been a very useful degree in pursuit of a path they are much less suited for than their tech idols.
What's your take? What would you advise a young person who is tempted to drop out of school to pursue their start-up dreams?