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Examining the degrees of Fortune 500 tech CEOs

6 min read

One of my recurring regrets is that I stopped at a bachelor's degree. There are many times when I wonder if having an MBA - or just the deeper study that a master's or even a PhD would provide - would be useful.

There's also a recurring meme in the tech industry that you don't need university. The story of the kid who drops out of college to start a multi-billion dollar business is often repeated. I suspected it wasn't true, but I didn't know.

So I posed the question: assuming your goal is to be the CEO of a big tech company, and based on previous experience, what should you study?

This comes with a big asterisk: being the CEO of a big tech company is not currently my goal, and I believe in education for education's sake, rather than to meet a career need. Treating education as a purely vocational pursuit is how we get to phenomenally expensive courses that are tied to salary expectations, rather than treating the collective pursuit of human knowledge as a common good, regardless of its ability to lead to a well-paying position.

Still, I thought it was doing the research. I took the relevant tech companies in the 2017 Fortune 500 list, and looked at two datasets: their first CEOs, and their current CEOs. (Where a company is no longer independent, like Yahoo, I used the last person who was CEO when it was - in this case, Marissa Meyer. And because Eric Schmidt was CEO of Google before Larry Page, while not technically being a founder, he is listed here.) In both cases, I did my best to find their educational history: their degrees undertaken, at which level they took them, and at which institutions. There are probably mistakes, but here's the whole dataset.

Here are some interesting highlights. I'm curious if there's more you've discovered from the data - let me know!

 

Founding CEOs

7 out of 38 CEOs dropped out of college: Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Michael Dell (Dell), William Morean (Jabil Circuit), and David Packard (HP). It's worth noting that Packard and Morean dropped out decades before the others. Packard later went back and got a Master's degree in Electrical Engineering from Stanford.

13 out of 38 CEOs have a Master's or higher degree. Electrical Engineering and Computer Science dominate the subjects taken, followed by Physics. None have an MBA, although Sandy Lerner, founder of Cisco, has a Master's in Econometrics.

5 have a doctorate, with Computer Science again being the most common.

 

Current CEOs

No current CEOs of any Fortune 500 tech company is a college dropout, and all went to college. This stands to reason: while founders can effectively luck or hustle their way into this position, it's highly unlikely that a new CEO will be hired without a degree.

In this list, Business Administration vies with Computer Science for being the top subject taken at an undergraduate level.

22 out of 38 CEOs have a Master's or higher degree. 13 have an MBA (again, compared to zero founders); 2 more did Law. Computer Science is relatively rare at the postgraduate level - and no current CEOs have a doctorate.

 

Fields of Study Overall

At the Undergraduate level, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science take the top spots, with 13 and 7 CEOs respectively. These two subjects are, of course, highly related, and often taught together. Mathematics and Mechanical Engineering also rate highly.

While Business Administration and Law have a few takers (7 and 3 respectively), most non-science subjects are represented with just one CEO each.

MBAs are by far the most popular graduate degrees, unsurprisingly, with 13 CEOs represented. 9 CEOs have a Master's in Computer Science; 6 in Electrical Engineering; and 3 in Law. There are no humanities represented at the Master's level.

 

Institutions

More Fortune 500 tech industry CEOs went to Stanford than anywhere else. That's completely unsurprising, given Stanford's interrelated history with Silicon Valley. This is then followed in quick succession by the University of Michigan, UC Berkeley, MIT, the University of Texas, and Princeton.

The only two CEOs to go to Harvard - Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg - dropped out of it.

More interestingly, there are very few institutions represented outside of the United States. While 51% of founders of $1bn+ companies are immigrants, most of them went to school here. No foreign university has more than one individual CEO representing it, although India and Canada have three CEOs each. I was also surprised (but not disappointed) to see that the only UK institution represented is not Oxford or Cambridge, but Bradford Polytechnic (now the University of Bradford). Bradford is one of the most racially diverse cities in Britain.

 

Conclusions

Stay in school, kids. The dropout CEOs all happened to be in the right place at the right time for a moment in computing that will never be repeated. There may be new moments, but the advantages of having a degree far outweigh any chance that you'll be successful without one.

Founding CEOs are most likely to be computer scientists or electrical engineers, with a deep level of technical knowledge that allows them to connect their vision with the feasible realities. Hired CEOs are likely to be business professionals who have risen through the ranks and found their position more deliberately. Of course, the degree taken doesn't deal with the intangibles - there are a host of skills and personality traits needed to run a company successfully. I could give my opinions as to what they are, but they can't be quantified.

Obviously, overall, my data is incomplete. There's more to examine, I'm sure there are entries to correct, and I haven't touched interim CEOs (those who served between the first CEO and the current one). But I hope you'll agree it's an interesting exploration.

Should I go back to school? Maybe, eventually. An MBA or law degree probably would be useful. At the same time, I wish there were more CEOs with humanities degrees. But what's more clear is that technical skills are an enormous boon - not a surprising finding, but it's interesting to see it reinforced. So it stands to reason that continuing to develop those skills, and keeping them sharp and up-to-date, is worth investing in.

Finally: AirTable made this much faster. I love it, and I'll sing its praises forever. If you haven't yet, give it a try.

 

Thanks to my sister Hannah Werdmuller for helping me to do the underlying research.