Mike Lynch cancels Cambridge lecture

I had been hoping to meet Dr Mike Lynch tomorrow evening at an innovation lecture in Cambridge, our local technology hero blazing a trail for Silicon Fen with his astonishingly successful software company Autonomy which was sold to Hewlett Packard in 2011 with his company valued at $10 billion; at the time, this was the second largest sale ever of a software company and the UK’s largest software company by market capitalization.

Not surprisingly, shocking headlines over the last 24 hours led to Dr Lynch cancelling the lecture, having to defend his name and reputation, after HP accused “certain former Autonomy employees” of deliberately inflating the company’s accounts to get a better sale price. Dr Lynch has hotly denied allegations of misleading accounting, accusing HP of mismanaging Autonomy after the buyout.

Dr Lynch’s lecture was keenly anticipated, but, fortunately for some, they were able to meet him last week when he inspired some of Cambridge’s bright pupils at the prestigious Perse School, and head teacher Ed Elliott posted about it on his blog.

Unsurprisingly, Dr Lynch revealed that hi-tech entrepreneurs need to be good at maths and science.  There is no escaping the importance of mastering these subjects to gain the detailed knowledge and understanding required for success in the hi-tech world.  However, excellence in maths and science alone is not enough.  Academic intelligence needs to be supplemented by emotional intelligence, communication skills, risk taking, cultural understanding, ambition and determination if potential is to be realised.  As a start-up Autonomy had some world leading technology, but customers did not buy the software because the company did not look the part.  Two research scientists operating out of a small Cambridge office did not inspire customer confidence.  Dr Lynch’s answer was to place a sign on the broom cupboard at the back of the office marked ‘Research Department: authorised entry only’.  Customers took confidence from the apparently large “research” function underpinning the technology and orders started to roll in. 

The message is clear.  To succeed academic skills and knowledge must be supplemented by a shrewd understanding of human nature and polished communication.  Later in the global rise of Autonomy, Dr Lynch explained how he broke into the US market by exploiting his ‘East End’ credentials.  He played on the fact that as an ‘East End boy’ he was struggling to get his world beating technologies funded in ‘class ridden’ Britain and hoped that by coming to America, the land of the free, he would find backers who could see past his “accent”.  American investors loved the narrative behind his product, and the rest of course is history.

Dr Lynch’s anecdotes may well have been exaggerated for a student audience, but they clearly illustrate the point that schools must do more than just provide an academic education.  Cambridge has more than its fair share of super smart people with brains the size of small countries, whose intellects can be under-utilised because they lack the communication skills, emotional intelligence, and understanding of human nature needed to work with and influence others.  Great ideas will never get taken up and invested in without compelling communication and an empathetic understanding of the target audience.

The current government seems to have a back to basics approach to education with an emphasis on traditional academic subjects and rote learning.  There are merits to this policy, but it must not come at the expense of out of classroom learning that develops important interpersonal skills.  Each week 60 different clubs and societies meet at The Perse, there are over 500 individual music lessons, scores of children will work as volunteers in primary schools, local charities and at Addenbrookes, and hundreds of children will play competitive sport, participate in drama, and/or complete outdoor pursuits training.  These learning activities develop pupils in the round, encouraging resilience, sharpening emotional intelligence and honing communication skills.  As head I like to play my part in creating a quick thinking, communication ‘savy’ generation, by giving students who have committed a minor offence ten seconds to talk their way out of a punishment.  Many rise admirably to the challenge, and in so doing develop the charm and eloquence needed in the next generation of British entrepreneurs and wealth creators.

I hope that Dr Lynch’s sums do add up, that he will clear his name and speaking in Cambridge again to inspire our future young entrepreneurs and start ups, continuing to add to the extraordinary Cambridge Phenomenon. It’s extraordinary that HP accountant could not spot anything untowards prior to the buyout.

*Dr Lynch OBE is a BBC board member. His accolades include being named the Confederation of British Industry’s Entrepreneur of the Year, the European Business Leaders Awards’ Innovator of the Year for pioneering new approaches to search and information processing technology, and Management Today’s Entrepreneur of the Year 2009. Mike won an IEE Award for Outstanding Achievement and was awarded an OBE for Services to Enterprise. He is also a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and a Lady Margaret Beaufort Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge.