It’s never too early to start planning world domination. For the next generation of would-be titans of high tech, this time of year brings a potentially life-altering decision: Which college to attend?
Sure, Steve Jobs is a college dropout, and so is Bill Gates. But for most who of those want to be a CEO or covet an IPO, getting a BA or BS is mandatory. And when it comes to producing whiz kids, not all schools are created equal. Peek into the corner offices in Silicon Valley, and some names crop up more than others on the undergraduate diploma on the wall or that college-logo coffee mug on the desk.
Click Here to View Our Ranking of the Top 29 Schools Producing Tech Leaders.
But which schools really represent a pipeline to the top jobs? To find out, The Daily Beast scoured the biographies of hundreds of key technology executives from the nation’s biggest companies and some of its hottest startups, too. Our goal was to identify which colleges, compared student-for-student (undergraduate enrollment data courtesy of the National Center for Education Statistics), have turned out the most undergraduates destined for high-tech greatness. While our results included many prestigious names, the rankings produced surprises as well. At the top of the list is a spot nearly 3,000 miles away from Silicon Valley. (Here’s a tip, future gadget czars of America. Bundle up: Those New Hampshire winters get awfully cold.)
Can an alma mater really make that much of a difference in helping prepare someone to launch the next Amazon.com or take the reins of an eBay or a Hewlett-Packard? Those who help high-tech companies find their leaders believe so. Geoffrey Champion, chairman and CEO of executive-search firm ChampionScott Partners, says that while a candidate would never be ruled in or excluded on the basis of where they went to college, some schools excel at inculcating a crucial skill for techland: dealing with uncertainty and making the right decision without taking too long to size up a situation quickly.
“It’s never a strict requirement—nobody ever says ‘I’ll only take a Harvard grad or a Stanford grad.’” says Champion. “But they will say 'I want someone who’s quick and decisive and a good leader, like a graduate of' and then they'll name certain schools.”
Champion says part of that stems from the competitive environment of the top schools, which vet their admittees so heavily. "Is the competition the only the reason they’re successful? No,” Champion says. “But is it the beginning of training in a process that helps them be successful? Yes.”
Of course, having a top-notch engineering curriculum helps. In The Daily Beast’s analysis, two majors—electrical engineering and computer science—ruled the list, accounting for nearly one out of every four undergraduate degrees bestowed upon the tech execs we examined. Other popular majors: economics, business, and mechanical engineering. (We did spot a lone journalism degree, earned by Akamai's CEO, Paul Sagan.)
To produce our rankings, we sought a cross-section of the technology world, from behemoths like Cisco Systems to notable up-and-comers. So we researched the leadership of more than 100 tech companies—starting with every such firm listed on the Fortune 500, along with startups featured in the TechCrunch 50 list and companies selected in the tech category of Technology Review’s Most Innovative Companies list. We then analyzed the biographies of the companies’ CEOs and other top executives—more than 250 “C-level” leaders in all—to tabulate their undergraduate alma maters. (In a nod to Messrs. Jobs and Gates, we didn’t exclude dropouts.)
To be sure, there are hundreds of other key technology companies out there—and countless more that may someday turn out to be important. Even so, our survey gave us a look at graduates from more than 150 different colleges. Schools that produced multiple executives in our universe of companies made the first cut in our analysis. But with a list that spanned institutions from the relatively tiny Lehigh University to giant University of Texas, we wanted to account for size as well. So our final rankings factor in the size of each school’s undergraduate student body.
So where might the next Carol Bartz or Jeff Bezos get their sheepskin? Take a look at our rankings of the top tech-exec producing colleges.
Thomas E. Weber is a writer and editor in New York City. He is a former bureau chief and columnist at The Wall Street Journal and was editor of the award-winning SmartMoney.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Clark Merrefield assisted in reporting this project.