Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

Can Two Tech Exec Candidates in California Compute With Voters?

While there have been politicians running for office in California before who have worked in the tech sector, there’s no doubt that the prospects for two of Silicon Valley’s more prominent execs–Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman–represent an unusual and interesting situation in the state’s history.

With the tech sector a beacon of hope in a very rough economy and a symbol of health compared with a debt-saddled government, it’s no surprise that both candidates are touting their time as CEOs of two of California’s better known digital giants.

Whitman ran eBay (EBAY) and Fiorina helmed Hewlett-Packard (HPQ).

And, as they both did in their Republican primary races, they’re pushing that business experience very hard.

“Career politicians in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., be warned: You now face your worst nightmare,” said Whitman in her victory speech after winning the GOP primary for governor, referring to herself and Fiorina, who is vying for a Senate seat. “Two businesswomen from the real world who know how to create jobs, balance budgets and get things done.”

But will their narrative of outsider, maverick, high-tech corporate execs versus entrenched career politicians–Democratic candidates Jerry Brown and Sen. Barbara Boxer, who are facing Whitman and Fiorina respectively–play well with voters, and, more importantly, how accurate is their depiction as can-do techies?

That’s something to pay attention to, since a lot will surely be riding on their golden portrayal as business successes in the Golden State versus their opponents’ ability to paint a more cloddish picture of their corporate tenures.

And, just from a quick reading of their Web sites, both Fiorina and Whitman have to tread very carefully.

For example, the bio for Fiorina on her site notes:

“Carly served as the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Hewlett-Packard Company from 1999 to 2005, leading the reinvention of the legendary company, successfully steering it through the dot-com bust and the worst technology recession in 25 years. During her tenure, HP’s revenues doubled, from $44 billion to $88 billion, with improved profitability in every product category. Today, HP is the largest technology company in the world.”

That certainly–and not surprisingly–leaves out the layoffs, the myriad controversies over her leadership and, as has been depicted in much press coverage and several books, her none-too-smooth heave-ho from HP with a big fat exit payout to cushion the blow.

In fact, it has been current CEO Mark Hurd who has deservedly gotten a lot of the credit for getting HP moving again.

In addition, while HP is certainly the largest tech company in terms of employees, it is nowhere near the largest in terms of anything else that counts, such as stock market valuation.

HP’s market cap is currently $112 billion, compared with $230 billion for Microsoft (MSFT), $251 billion for Apple (AAPL) and even $168 billion for IBM (IBM).

On her Web site, the tale of Whitman is also rich in wow:

“At eBay, Meg made history. Meg steered eBay through the dot-com rise and fall that saw the vast majority of high-flying start-ups crash and burn, while eBay turned in one quarter of dramatic growth after another. When she joined eBay, the company had just $4.7 million in revenues and 30 employees; when she retired in March of 2008, ten years later, the company had nearly $8 billion in revenues and 15,000 employees worldwide–with millions of users in California alone.”

It’s all pretty much true, and throwing in California auction fans is a nice touch, too.

But it also leaves out a laundry list of problems Whitman left behind, from eBay’s slowness to innovate after its initial success, thereby almost totally missing Web 2.0, to its struggles to reinvigorate its main market business to a series of questionable acquisitions–Skype calling!–made in her decade in charge.

To be fair, any CEO tenure is a mixed bag, and there is not one tech exec who has not presided over a disaster or two.

That said, if both Fiorina and Whitman are selling themselves as Silicon Valley wunderkinds who can fix what’s broke in California, they are going to have to get ready to defend their business records over the next five months just the same as the career pols they are aiming to unseat.

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