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50 for 50 – The Most Important IT Disruptors of the Last Half Century

American sports fans are probably familiar with the ESPN TV show, 30 for 30, which profiled 30 individuals, teams and issues that transformed the sporting landscape during the network’s first 30 years of broadcasting.

IT Disruptors

Who are the 50 people who have most transformed the IT industry landscape over the last half century, and how might examining the role of these specific individuals help us in our ongoing research into both disruptive technologies and digital leadership?

I was reminded of this concept back in April, when the 50th anniversary of the IBM 360 mainframe was being widely and rightly acknowledged. As an amateur IT historian, it struck me that developing a 50 for 50 list might be worthwhile. Who are the 50 people who have most transformed the IT industry landscape over the last half century, and how might examining the role of these specific individuals help us in our ongoing research into both disruptive technologies and digital leadership?

The key to any such exercise is selecting criteria that are both credible and practical. This proved surprisingly straightforward. The big shifts in the IT industry have been mostly initiated by two types of people: inventors/technologists who created something new and important, and entrepreneurs who drove significant marketplace change. (Often, important IT entrepreneurs were also important inventors/technologists, but not always.) By excluding CIOs, VCs and non-founder CEOs from this analysis, we can make broad apples-to-apples individual comparisons.

Thus, the 50 for 50 challenge can be stated as follows. Over the last half century – across each of the major generations of mainframes, minicomputers, PCs, internet, mobility, software, services and networking (not including telephony/cable) – which technologists and entrepreneurs have had the greatest global impact? My current list is below, presented in roughly chronological order:

Boe Evans, Gene Amdahl, Ross Perot, Seymour Cray, Ted Codd, Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce, Andy Grove, Ted Hoff, Vint Cerf, Ken Olsen, Gordon Bell, An Wang, Larry Ellison, Hasso Plattner, Ray Kurzweil, Bob Metcalfe, Bill Joy, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Dan Bricklin, Don Estridge, Bill Gates, Mitch Kapor, Al Shugart, Rod Canion, Ray Noorda, Michael Dell, Scott Cook, Ray Ozzie, Leonard Bosack, Tim Berners-Lee, Linus Torvalds, Tom Siebel, Marc Andreessen, Steve Case, Mike Lazaridis, Jeff Bezos, Shawn Fanning, Pierre Omidyar, Marc Benioff, Elon Musk, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Janus Friis, Jimmy Wales, Reed Hastings, Mark Zuckerberg, Reid Hoffman, Jack Dorsey.

The reasons each person has been chosen are briefly stated at the end of this document. It’s been my privilege to spend at least some time with about half of these leaders, all of whom recognize(d) that their success depended on the efforts of many others.

Of course, the fun of such lists is debating about who is missing, and there are many close calls, including the following 30: Jack Kilby, Doug Engelbart, Edson de Castro, Regis McKenna, Clive Sinclair, Pat McGovern, John Imlay, James H Clark, Bob Kahn, Michael Bloomberg, Gideon Gartner, Andreas Bechtolsheim, Dennis Ritchie, Scott McNealy, James Gosling, David Duffield, Bill Ziff, Stan Shih, Masayoshi Son, Whitfield Diffie, Jerry Yang, Peter Thiel, Tim O’Reilly, Jony Ive, Sean Parker, Craig Newmark, Sky Dayton, Jack Ma, Doug Cutting, Satoshi Nakamoto (pseudonym) and many others.

But the research value of this exercise emerged only after compiling a spreadsheet that included the birthplaces, education, age of initial impact and other biographical dimensions (relying heavily on The Wikipedia). Even if the top 50 names were changed a bit, the general patterns below would hold true.

  • 78 percent are US born, but 90 percent are at least somewhat US educated
  • 78 percent graduated from college and 46 percent earned an advanced degree of some sort, although both figures have dropped significantly over time
  • 76 percent founded or co-founded their firm, and 58 percent work/worked mostly in California
  • The average age for founding their firm or making their main technology breakthrough is 32
  • All 50 are men – all 80 if you count the close calls above.

The last point is obviously sensitive. While many fields have a mostly male past, I have focused on building the list itself, not the hotly debated reasons why. To try to make sure no women have been overlooked, I have run the full list of 80 by a dozen or so colleagues (of both genders) and scanned many web listings/rankings. While there are far more women entrepreneurs now than there used to be, no one yet appears to have had the broad impact of those above. Judy Estrin, Sandy Lerner, Esther Dyson and Arianna Huffington got the most mentions. If you have other suggestions, please send them along. One of the reasons we have published the list is to generate a more crowd-sourced consensus.

The focus on inventors and founders, not high-profile CEOs/COOs/CIOs, was also a key factor – hence no Carol Bartz, Carly Fiorina, Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg or Ginni Rommety, or any of today’s prominent female CIOs, now around 10 percent of the total. This criterion also explains why Lou Gerstner, Eric Schmidt, John Chambers, Randy Mott and other well-known male CEOs/CIOs have not been included.

Similarly, the US/Euro-centrism of the list also raised flags. But while there have clearly been many important figures in the history of the Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean, Indian, Chinese, Israeli and other national markets (and a great many essential technical contributions), no one individual has emerged as a clear global IT industry game-changer, although perhaps there is someone at Samsung. Again, suggestions/critiques are most welcome.

The obvious question is whether the five statistical patterns identified above will continue into the future. Certainly, the web has dispersed business and IT innovation much more globally, and thus it would be extremely surprising if the 2014-2064 list isn’t much more geographically and gender balanced – if there even is something called ‘the IT industry’ by 2064.

But as of today, the pattern continues. Consider the leadership of the dominant open source communities. In addition to Berners-Lee and Torvalds, there is Larry Wall (Perl), David Heinemeier Hansson (Ruby on Rails), Doug Cutting (Hadoop), Brian Behlendorf (Apache), Mårten Mickos (MySQL), Guido van Rossum (Python), Mark Shuttleworth (Ubuntu) and Andrew Tridgell (Samba), born in various places, but mostly living and working in the US. The same US-centric pattern holds true for the current wave of industry disruptors led by people like Garrett Camp (Uber), Brian Chesky (Airbnb), Rodney Brooks (iRobot), Doug Williams (iHealth), Salman Khan (Khan Academy) and Bre Pettis (MakerBot). While they are still all guys, they are more importantly a reminder that even in an age of open communities and social media, individual innovators, leaders and risk takers remain the driving forces of market change. IT industry disruptions and digital leadership are as much the stories of creative and passionate people as they are of machines and code.

Top 50 Innovators/Entrepreneurs – Individual Rationales

  • Bob O. (‘Boe’) Evans. Helped persuade Tom Watson, Jr. to scrap IBM’s various incompatible computers, then managed the development of the S/360 family, arguably the most important computers in IT history.

  • Gene Amdahl. Key S/360 designer (along with Gerry Blaauw and Fred Brooks). Left IBM in 1970 to found Amdahl and build IBM-compatible mainframes, which were especially important in Japan.

  • H. Ross Perot. The IBM super-salesman left to found Electronic Data Systems in 1962, effectively creating the data processing services business.

  • Seymour Cray. Universally recognized as the father of supercomputing, Cray left Control Data in the early 1970s to found Cray Research, dedicated solely to building the world’s fastest computers.

  • Edward F. Codd. While at IBM in 1970, Ted issued his famous paper ‘A Relational Model for Data in Large Shared Data Banks’, forever changing the database industry.

  • Gordon Moore. By co-founding both Fairchild and Intel, Moore played a central role in creating today’s Silicon Valley IT industry colossus. His influence lives on through the still-prevailing Moore’s Law.

  • Robert Noyce. Also a Fairchild and Intel co-founder, saw the vast potential of integrated circuits and (simultaneous with Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments) made them a reality.

  • Andrew S. Grove. Intel’s fourth employee. He led the firm’s shift from DRAMs to microprocessors; he also managed the negotiations that convinced IBM to use Intel’s 808X architecture in the IBM PC.

  • Marcian E. (‘Ted’) Hoff. Intel’s employee number 12, Ted is widely credited with the creation of a ‘universal processor’ as an alternative to custom circuitry, triggering the microprocessor revolution.

  • Vinton Cerf. Widely seen as a ‘father of the internet’ (along with Bob Kahn), thanks to his role in developing packet switching, the TCP/IP protocol, and overall internet governance.

  • Kenneth Olsen. Founder of Digital Equipment Corp, whose PDP 8 and 11 were the first widely successful minicomputers, launching the Massachusetts-led minicomputer industry.

  • C. Gordon Bell. Key designer of Digital’s PDP and VAX systems. The latter was the world’s most successful business and scientific minicomputer, widely viewed as a model of software excellence.

  • An Wang. In the 1970s and ’80s, Wang word processing systems delivered unmatched document editing and sharing capabilities, and were the first computers used by millions of non-IT professionals.

  • Lawrence Ellison. Inspired by Ted Codd’s work, in 1977 founded System Development Laboratories which eventually became Oracle, the world’s largest database software company.

  • Hasso Plattner. Left IBM in 1972 to continue work on what has come to be called Enterprise Resource Planning. Founded SAP, which dominates this essential enterprise computing marketplace.

  • Raymond Kurzweil. While best known today for the singularity and trying to live forever, Ray was a pioneer in voice and text recognition, and voice and music synthesizers.

  • Robert Metcalfe. Inventor (with David Boggs) of the Ethernet (1973) and founder of 3Com (1979), his work revolutionized local computer connectivity, with concepts still used today.

  • William Joy. The most legendary developer of his era, his contributions to Berkeley Unix, Solaris, Java, NFS, SPARC processors and other areas have shaped the design of computers to this day.

  • Stephen Wozniak. Without Woz, there would have been no Apple I and Apple II and perhaps no Steve Jobs. His ability to build a working product essentially by himself remains inspirational today.Steven Jobs. The Apple II, the Mac, NeXT, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad … nobody has done more to advance the cause of simple, powerful and aesthetically pleasing computing. Daniel Bricklin. Built the first spreadsheet, VisiCalc, transforming the Apple II from a hobbyist curiosity into a powerful business PC. VisiCalc’s $100 price tag changed business software pricing forever.

  • Philip ‘Don’ Estridge. ‘The father of the IBM PC’ (1981), he made the critical decisions to use Intel microprocessors and Microsoft’s MS-DOS, arguably the two most fateful choices in IT industry history.

  • William Gates, III. Dropped out of Harvard in 1974 to start his own PC software company. The rest is synonymous with the PC revolution – IBM-compatible PCs, Windows, Office, Explorer, NT …

  • Mitchell Kapor. After helping develop VisiCalc, Kapor left and founded Lotus in 1982. The easy-to-use Lotus 123 was inseparable from the rapid success of the IBM PC in the global business market.

  • Alan Shugart. After years at IBM, in 1979 he founded the company that eventually became Seagate, developers of the first 5.25” hard disk drive, an essential personal computer component.Joseph Rodney Canion. While today we take the notion of compatible PCs for granted, Rod and the company he founded in 1982, Compaq, was the first to show that it could successfully be done.

  • Raymond Noorda. Joined a then-struggling Novell Data Systems and turned it into a local area network powerhouse. The ability to easily share storage and printers led to the demise of the minicomputer.

  • Michael Dell. When he was just 18, he saw the cost, configuration and agility advantages of selling personal computers directly – initially through PC’s Limited which soon became Dell Computer.

  • Scott Cook. One of the few on this list with roots in marketing (Proctor & Gamble) and consulting (Bain), Scott founded Intuit in 1983, and dominates the personal finance software market to this day.

  • Raymond Ozzie. Another VisiCalc contributor who eventually moved to Lotus, Ozzie was the creator of what became Lotus Notes, the first widely deployed enterprise messaging/document software.

  • Leonard Bosack. In 1984, co-founded Cisco with the goal of building routers to connect LANs across wide area networks. Today, Cisco’s hardware and software are pervasive across the global internet.

  • Timothy Berners-Lee. While at CERN in 1989, he saw the potential of linking hypertext technology with the TCP/IP protocol and the Internet Domain Name system, the building blocks of the world wide web.

  • Linus Torvalds. By building Linux (1991) through an open source process he revolutionized the way we think about software development, and largely solved the Unix incompatibility problem.

  • Thomas Siebel. After years at Oracle, left to form the company that eventually (1993) bore his name, establishing CRM as a mainstream enterprise capability, ironically acquired by Oracle in 2005.

  • Marc Andreessen. Developer of the first successful web browser (Mosaic/Netscape, 1993), he enabled millions of consumers to connect to the internet for the first time, initiating the end of the PC era.

  • Stephen Case. Another P&G alumnus with a marketing background, he took a fledgling online firm and in 1991 turned it into America Online, the first great online social media success.

  • Mihal (‘Mike’) Lazaridis. In 1984, founded Research In Motion, whose Blackberry dominated the enterprise mobility market for a decade before giving way to more consumer-focused devices.

  • Jeffrey Bezos. It takes a very bold person to name his new firm (Amazon, 1994) after the world’s biggest river, and then back it up – in books, goods, computing, devices, music, and who knows what else.

  • Shawn Fanning. A controversial choice for sure, but the role of Napster is often under-appreciated. It paved the way for the iPod/iTunes revolution, and the music industry disruption that followed.

  • Pierre Omidyar. In 1991, founded the firm that eventually became eBay, pioneer in e-commerce, community development and payment systems that still dominates its marketplace.

  • Marc Benioff. After many successful years at Oracle, founded in 1999. The company has become the poster child for the Software-as-a-Service industry.

  • Elon Musk. With his diverse successes and founder/co-founder roles in PayPal, Space-X, Tesla and other ventures, Musk is increasingly seen as the Thomas Edison of our time. A classic serial disrupter.

  • Lawrence Page. While studying at Stanford under Terry Winograd, began researching the page ranking concepts and algorithms that eventually led to his co-founding of Google in 1996.

  • Sergey Brin. Combined page ranking with his data mining expertise to build the search engine that supplanted all others and became the dominant internet advertising platform.

  • Janus Friis. Co-founder with Niklas Zennström of both KaZaA (2000) and then Skype (2003), Friis has been a pioneer in building peer-to-peer systems, while disrupting music and telecom industry norms.

Nothing better demonstrates the power of crowd-sourcing and peer review than the Wikipedia.

  • Jimmy Wales. Nothing better demonstrates the power of crowd-sourcing and peer review than the Wikipedia, co-founded by Wales in 2001, and now an essential part of our daily lives.

  • Reed Hastings. Disrupting Blockbuster was one thing, but Netflix (co-founded 1997) is now driving the internet TV revolution, while proving that Amazon can handle almost any cloud workload imaginable.

  • Mark Zuckerberg. Another programming prodigy and college (Harvard) drop-out, co-founded ‘Thefacebook’ in 2004. It now dominates the social media space with over 1 billion users.

  • Reid Hoffman. With roots at Stanford, Apple and PayPal, co-founded LinkedIn in 2002. He is also one of the most successful and respected angel investors in Silicon Valley.Jack Dorsey. While accounts of Twitter’s creation (2006) vary, Dorsey co-founded the firm that made it simple for anyone to put their thoughts (albeit short ones) immediately and freely online.


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