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Why Mark Zuckerberg is a bad role model for aspiring tech execs

Few college dropouts end up running U.S. high-tech companies; most tech CEOs have at least one graduate degree

By , Network World
July 02, 2012 10:02 AM ET

Network World - Want to run a successful high-tech company? Don't drop out of college.

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 U.S. high -tech firms have college degrees, and more than half have at least one graduate degree.

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We analyzed the educational backgrounds of the 50 highest paid and most powerful CEOs in the U.S. 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. And, of course, their success is the result of founding their own companies as opposed to being hired by a board of directors to run an existing tech firm.

CEO dropouts

"I've met as many successful tech CEOs who have dropped out college as I've met folks who have won the lottery," says Professor Jerry Luftman, managing director of the Global Institute for IT Management, who holds doctorate in Information Systems from Stevens Institute of Technology. "There are always going to be exceptions to any rule. But if you are a betting person, you would increase your odds of becoming a tech executive if you have a college education and a senior executive if you have a management degree."

Jeff Hocking, senior client partner at executive recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International, says he doubts Zuckerberg would even get an interview for a CEO job at another tech company.

"There are a few people like Bill Gates who were college dropouts and were founders of successful tech companies, but none of these people came into the CEO role from somewhere else," Hocking says. "I have placed a few non-CEOs without degrees, but they have had 20 to 30 years of a successful career. It would be very difficult for me to encourage my son, who is a freshman in college, to drop out and start a company."

Of the 50 top high-tech CEOs, 27 completed not only an undergraduate degree in computer science, engineering or business, but also hold a master's degree in one of these fields. Seven of these CEOs completed two post-graduate degrees. Three high-tech CEOs hold PhDs, while one is a lawyer.

Indeed, it appears that the motto for aspiring high-tech CEOs should be: the more formal education, the better.

Consider the example of Dan Hesse, CEO and president of Sprint Nextel. Not only does he hold a bachelor's degree in government and international studies from Notre Dame University and a master's in business administration (MBA) from Cornell University, he also holds a master's degree from the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he won the Brooks Thesis Prize for writing the outstanding master's thesis.

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