15 most influential tech leaders of the decade

Here are 15 visionaries who have changed how we work and, in some cases, how we live, in the past decade.

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It's a tall order coming up with a list of the most influential tech leaders of the decade in the enterprise and beyond, when you think about the vast number of innovations and events that changed the nature of how we work and live in that timeframe.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that the lines of demarcation between B2B and B2C, have been blurred beyond a meaningful distinction in many ways. Widespread acceptance of bring-your-own-device in the past few years has meant that much of the technology we use in our personal lives has merged with our work lives to the point where it's sometimes hard to separate the two. 

Be that as it may, here's a look at TechRepublic's list of the most influence enterprise tech leaders of the 2010s with some of the usual suspects, as well as some who fly under the radar.

SEE: More Decade in Review coverage (TechRepublic on Flipboard)

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO, Amazon

You essentially can't have a list of tech visionaries and not include Bezos, although, arguably, many of his accomplishments in the 2010s were more consumer focused: he launched Amazon Studios in 2010; bought The Washington Post in 2013; and Whole Foods in 2017.

But in between the man who changed the face of digital commerce released Echo, the first generation of one of the first mainstream smart speakers and introduced the Alexa ecosystem. In 2014, Amazon launched the Fire Phone, which flopped. Here's where the impact on the enterprise comes in. Amazon's fulfillment centers use image-recognition algorithms including the type of product or size and weight, to sort parcels coming off of trucks.

"What takes humans with bar-code scanners an hour to accomplish at older fulfillment centers can now be done in half that time," Fast Company noted in 2017. "This is what the future of American factory work might look like.''

Tim Cook, CEO, Apple

It would be remiss to have a list of tech visionaries without including the CEO of one of the most valuable brands in the world. Even after the death of Steve Jobs in 2011, Cook forged on and spearheaded the Apple Watch Series 4 (2018). Since then Apple has been experimenting with everything from advanced artificial intelligence and augmented reality to autonomous cars. The iPhone and Android continue to dominate in the mobile sphere and Cook has been working to make Apple a company focused on renewable energy, labor, and environmentally -friendly supply chains, as well as user privacy and high-recyclable products, according to Leander Kahney, who authored a 2019 book on Cook.

Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft

By late 2013, Microsoft was rapidly becoming a has-been in the minds of many users and analysts who cited the failure of Windows 8 and the fact that the company was behind the eight-ball in the smartphone market—only to see a total failure with Windows Phone. Its acquisition of Nokia was expensive and provided no value.
 
But Nadella took over Microsoft from Steve Ballmer in 2014, and Windows 10 was announced later that year. Since then, Microsoft has come back with a vengeance. It has opened up with apps on competing devices. It has launched its own line of competitive computers. It has staked a claim in the cloud space with the hugely successful Office 365 and Azure offerings. It has even embraced Linux alongside Windows. And, finally, Windows 10 is a clear success.

Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman, Alibaba Group

Having spearheaded e-commerce in China, Ma is now the richest man in that country and was named to Forbes list of the world's greatest leaders. He was also named the 30th most powerful person in the world in 2017. Then there is the story he has told about being rejected for a job by Kentucky Fried Chicken, after 24 people applied for the job and 23 were hired – except for him.
Failure and perseverance have served him well. "The lessons he learned from the dark days at Alibaba were that you don't give up and when you're small you have to rely on your brain, not your strength," said Laura DiDio, principal of tech research firm and consultancy ITIC. Ma announced he was stepping down as chairman on his 55th birthday in September. A former teacher, Ma said he plans to return to the classroom after his retirement. 

Palmer Luckey, founder, Oculus

Oculus VR began in a garage in Irvine, California, in June 2012. Then-19-year-old Palmer Luckey launched the company on Kickstarter, raising nearly $2.5 million for his virtual reality headset, according to Business Insider. After raising an additional $16 million in funding, Luckey sold Oculus to Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion

Luckey has since left Oculus, but Facebook continues to work on the virtual reality company, relaunching Oculus for business with entirely new enterprise-grade software and support for the Oculus Quest, an all-in-one VR system. The goal is to support an ecosystem of business administrators, developers, and end users, according to ZDNet.

Marc Benioff, founder and co-CEO, Salesforce

Benioff is considered a major catalyst in the rise of cloud computing, building a hosted software model on the Salesforce cloud and spearheading the pay-per-use model. In 2018, he orchestrated the $6.5 billion deal for MuleSoft, which brings together disparate software applications, data, and devices. Additionally, Benioff is a dedicated philanthropist and in November, called for every corporate CEO to close the gap on pay disparity between men and women.

Ren Zhengfei, founder and CEO, Huawei

While Huawei has been in the headlines over the past several years for alleged spying in the US, and Canada, the company has also been innovating, making advances in servers, 5G, 6G, telecom and smartphones. Now Huawei is getting into the computer game. "What they're doing is investing very heavily in R&D; 15 to 20% of their revenue is going back to that and to security," DiDio said.

Although North America is a tough market for Huawei right now, the company is making inroads in the Asia-Pacific region but also in Australia and New Zealand, and next up are South America, Africa, the Middle East, and western Europe, DiDio said.

Peter Sun, chairman and CEO, Inspur

Inspur landed in IDC's top five companies worldwide for server revenue and is China's leading cloud computing and big data/AI service provider.

In 2014, IBM and Inspur collaborated to develop a new hardware system with IBM supplying software, processors, chips and support. Earlier that year, Inspur also became a member of IBM's OpenPower Foundation, an alliance dedicated to developing Power Chip architecture.

Sun believes the next technological revolution: AI, big data and cloud, dubbed "ABC" are fundamental to the global economic recovery and will "lessen the negative influence of economic crises."

Ginni Rometty, CEO, IBM

Rometty has led IBM's transition to a data company and made cognitive computing the center of its strategy for the future with Watson in several verticals. She is one of only 3% of women executives in Fortune 500. Half of IBM's $79.1 billion 2017 revenue comes from the emerging, high-value segments of IT versus its legacy software products.

"Her legacy is a big question mark because of IBM's revenues," observed DiDio. "IBM gets knocked because Watson has not delivered huge numbers, but it's only been out there since 2013-14. It's one of those things that has to germinate for 10 to 15 years when talking about cognitive computing and AI."

SEE: From Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos, these 30 personalities defined the 2010s (CNET)

Robert Swan, CEO, Intel

Chosen to lead as the company's new CEO in January 2019, Intel is known for its processors but has expanded to the cloud, the IoT, and memory and programmable solutions. Swan told CNBC he's confident the technology giant will continue its strong performance in the final months of the year, building off its best quarter ever.

Duncan Epping, CTO, VMware

Epping is one of the most influential people globally on storage and availability, HCI, virtualization and cloud technologies. He is a VMware Certified Design Expert (VCDX007) and serves as a partner and trusted adviser to customers of the virtualization tech provider, primarily in EMEA. He is the co-author of several books, including the vSphere Clustering Deepdive series and Essential Virtual SAN. He is the owner and main author of virtualization blog yellow-bricks.com. His primary responsibilities are ensuring that VMware's future innovations align with essential customer needs and translating customer problems to opportunities.

Stewart Butterfield, founder, Slack

Butterfield started working on work chat app Slack in 2012. The first iteration was a web-based, multiplayer game that didn't go over so well. Fast-forward to 2013 and the Slack team knew they had a product on their hands that other companies would actually use. 

"We begged and cajoled our friends at other companies to try it out and give us feedback," Butterfield said in an interview with venture capital firm First Round Capital. Most recently, Slack raised $250 million at a $5.1 billion valuation from SoftBank's Vision Fund, Accel, and other investors. Slack is now considered one of the leading workplace software platforms used by companies to facilitate collaboration and communication in an increasingly digital world. 

Jensen Huang, founder and CEO, Nvidia

Huang has been CEO of cutting-edge chip maker Nvidia, since the company's inception in 1993. Nvidia's GPU computing has reinvented modern computer graphics—it powers US-based Summit, the world's fastest supercomputer. The company has made significant advances in deep learning and AI, and GPU deep learning has ignited modern AI, with the GPU acting as the brain of computers, robots and self-driving cars.

Although Nvidia attempted to compete in the highly competitive smartphone market with its own mobile chip and modem four years ago, it failed to gain traction against offerings by competitors like Qualcomm. So Huang rebounded and took some of the technology in the mobile chips repurposed them for self-driving cars, according to Forbes.

"He's done a good job of realizing Nvidia's parallel processing capabilities are ideally situated to tackle some of the most difficult computing challenges of the next five to 10 years," said Craig Ellis, a senior managing director of research at investment firm B. Riley & Co. in the Forbes article. Nvidia now controls 70% of the PC graphics card market, and in the past five years has seen its sales skyrocket from 41% to $5 billion.

Meredith Whittaker, AI researcher, formerly of Google

Whittaker took a leading role late last year in organizing walkouts of Google employees around the world to protest the company's handling of sexual harassment complaints against senior executives. She holds the distinction of being the most prominent organizer and activist among tech workers, said Zachary Chase Lipton, assistant professor of business technologies and machine learning at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business.

"She has taken substantive action to hold large firms accountable both for their ethical conduct in society and for their treatment of employees, often at great career risk," he said, "and has transformed the landscape of power in Silicon Valley by providing some hope that tech workers can demand accountability of their employers."

Whittaker left Google after 13 years in July, telling the Los Angeles Times she wanted to work full time on AI ethics and to focus on "organizing for an accountable tech industry–and it's clear Google isn't a place where I can continue this work."

Andy Jassy, CEO, AWS

Jassy is the force behind Amazon Web Services and runs one of the most aggressive areas in the enterprise tech world, notes Forbes. Companies from Netflix to Spotify to Major League Baseball use Amazon's cloud to send real-time data, stream video and much more.

"Before Jassy, the idea of renting computing power from another company was unheard of, and now these companies all rely on AWS for their survival,'' Forbes said. Over the past 10 years, Jassy has helped turn AWS into a more than $14 billion business, according to Time magazine

Also see

Dreamforce 2019

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple (left), and Marc Benioff, Chairman and co-CEO of Salesforce, at Dreamforce 2019 in San Francisco.

Image: Noah Berger/Salesforce