Barksdale offers advice to Harvard students

InfoWorld |  Networking

FORMER Netscape Communications president and chief executive officer, Jim Barksdale, offered some friendly advice to the best and brightest business school students over the weekend: It's good to be smart, but it's better to be lucky.

"Nobody that I know can predict the next two pings of the pinball," Barksdale said, the metaphor a comparison to the random interaction of technology. While clever people might figure out where to move to catch the next innovative bounce, no one's smart enough to see two steps ahead. Don't bother. "Go ahead and try for three, you'd own the world," he quipped.

Barksdale colored his presentation to the Harvard Business School's annual Cyberposium conference with Southern wit and a laid-back style in sharp contrast to the hypertensive tone of other speakers on Saturday. His Mississippi drawl belied the serious issues he raised discussing the lessons he has learned and the future of technology.

Those in the money and scouting talent seemed reluctant to talk about the future market, but eager instead to explain why their new-and-improved software or special microchip or happy magic pebble will be immune to the continuing shakeout.

"There was a period a year ago when if you could spell Internet you got 5 million dollars . . . and if you could spell TCP/IP you got 10," Barksdale said. Thanks to the market crash, there is less money around now, though. For entrepreneurs, "the ability to raise capital recovers in six to nine months," after a major fall in the market, he said. Of greater concern than this time lag, however, is that technology investment funds are shrinking, Barksdale said.

While calling the effect of computer networks the most powerful engine for economic growth, he talked down industry's ability to roll out the much-anticipated deployment of broadband to the home. DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) and cable Internet will be hard and messy, said Barksdale, a member of the AOL Time Warner board. "I think it's going to be harder than people think."

Conversely, the death of business-to-business Web sites has been greatly exaggerated. "Business-to-business is alive and growing at a good rate," he said. Citing the potential for b-to-b to create a 3 percent reduction in cost of goods sold -- resulting in a 51 percent increase in earnings per share -- Barksdale said "I know perfectly honorable people who would kill for that number."

B-to-b works because of this network effect, an effect Barksdale has sought to enable throughout his professional career, first by networking Federal Express, then at 3Com and Netscape. "What the Netscape browser did was make the Internet usable by mere mortals."

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