The Case for Ashton Kutcher

I’ve noticed several high-profile people critiquing Lenovo’s hire of Ashton Kutcher as Product Engineer. I respect many of those people, yet I couldn’t disagree more with their critique; in fact, I find it very hypocritical.

Who was Steve Jobs when he started Apple with Wozniak et al? Nobody. He had no degree to qualify him for the job. He had no engineering chops. He was a college dropout, a hippie, and a druggie. But he had a passion about something. And that passion transformed him, and allowed him to play the roles of product engineer, salesman, leader, and CEO, among others.

On the other hand, we have Bill Gates – a true engineer. How much have you enjoyed the user experience of Windows over the years? Zune? Windows Phone? Windows tablets (pre-Surface, especially)? IBM is run by engineers – their products are anything but simple and easy to use. BMW has some world-class engineers – and their UI is one of the most complex and frustrating in the business. Engineers create great technology, but they often don’t know how to integrate and simplify it to produce superb user experience.

Ashton clearly stated that his role would revolve around bringing a better user experience to the already-excellent Lenovo hardware offerings; nobody said anything about designing electrical circuits. Time and again we’ve all agreed with Jobs and Tim Cook when they said, “Apple is an intersection of Liberal Arts and Technology.” And yet, when Lenovo hires someone from the liberal arts side to help their technology, we laugh. Why? This isn’t any different from what Apple has been doing.

I don’t know if Ashton will do a great job. But that’s the thing: I don’t know, so I give him the benefit of a doubt. I don’t pretend to know because it’s impossible for me to know. And, if anything, I see many parallels to Apple here, which is a good thing. I know Ashton is extremely passionate about technology. He has a successful record in technology investments. He has read more books than I maybe ever will. He surely knows enough about technology to know what is a good investment and what is a bad investment. His new role is to decide which features/design are a good investment of employees’ time and what aren’t – that doesn’t sound all that different from what he has already been doing.

Lastly, some people have issues with the word “engineer” being in his title. Well that’s just ignorance of English language – we don’t see Doctors of Philosophy degree recipients operating on patients. Like the word “doctor,” “engineer” is a versatile term.

I wish you the best of luck, Ashton – you have the passion, that’s for sure. And as far as I can tell, that’s the most important thing in the world. Martin Luther King wasn’t in a college marching band, yet he organized some of the best marches in history. And all he needed, he told us, was a dream.

Oh, and can we please have the next Lenovo laptop weigh exactly two and a half pounds?