The best IT vendor CEO of the decade is…

Depending on how you count, January begins the second decade of the 21st century. While a painful 10 years in many ways, the information technology industry saw some phenomenal changes during that time. It also saw the demise of a few iconic figures and the emergence (and re-emergence) of others who led the companies that drove those changes.

So, who was the greatest of the great IT vendor CEOs in the initial decade of the 21st century? First, let’s eliminate the also-rans.

Over at Microsoft, despite sitting on a pile of money, an adjudicated monopoly, a vast market share, a devoted following, smart employees, and much more in his favor, Steve Ballmer did very little with the company Bill Gates handed to him and is not even close to being considered a great CEO. He may be a terrific technocrat and a super salesman, but it’s safe to leave him off the list.

Larry Ellison, Oracle’s boss, steered his company through some choppy waters in the past 10 years. He’s made some pretty impressive acquisitions. He also solidified his company’s eponymous database as the number one choice for business. But he’s been late to accept so many of the era’s significant advances, open source comes to mind as does cloud computing, that his lack of vision knocks him from consideration.

The boys at Facebook and Twitter have not been around long enough nor have they made money in their respective businesses yet to be considered at all. They remain diamonds in the rough.

Others to be easily overlooked include Intel’s Craig Barrett and Paul Otellini, whose tenure at the top of the microprocessor giant overlapped during the decade. Even their combined genius was not enough to lead Intel, with all its resources and advantages, to beyond so-so performance. Sun Microsystem’s Jonathan Schwartz was supposed to be the new bright bulb to return the sparkle to a once great company. We know how that turned out. The CEO churn at Yahoo! makes it a joke to bring up the company. Sorry.

Let’s look at the serious contenders for Best IT Vendor CEO of the Decade.

In India there have been some impressive leaders in the past ten years. For example, Srinath Narasimhan has led Tata Communications to become one of the most influential arms of the huge $62 billion Tata Group. But given the Indian government assistance to Tata over the years and the company’s limited influence in IT outside the country’s borders, I have eliminated Narasimhan from the top slot.

And while Wipro and its CEO Girish Paranjpe drove the global outsourcing flood in the last 10 years, Wipro’s primary contribution was leverage of labor arbitrage, an old business model, not true management innovation. However, the pace of managerial and technical expertise in India is accelerating and I’m betting in the next decade the title will go to a CEO based there.

Cisco Systems’ John Chambers and IBM’s Sam Palmisano have done marvelous jobs at sustaining their huge organizations. They both maintained coherent, intelligent business strategies and have led their respective companies brilliantly. But they have not led the way in developing game-changing technologies. They have led in taking those game-changing technologies to greater success. But that’s not the same thing.

Eric Schmidt at Goggle has to be a contender. (Plus, he’s a personal favorite of mine, having worked with him back at Sun in the 1980s.) He brought adult supervision to Google. He’s been instrumental in taking a mere search engine company and turning it into media giant. But that’s my problem with Google. Beyond the search technology, something its founders did not invent, but merely perfected, Google has proven to be a follower in technology. Gmail, Chrome, Android, and the rest, while all impressive, arrive in the fashion of Microsoft, after the market has been established by others. So Eric does not get the nod.

We come now to Steve Jobs. His story is well known. He took a battered Apple Computer, revived it, inspired it, and led it to the greatness it once had in the 1980s and early 1990s. He oversaw the development of OS X, my favorite operating system ever. He drove the creation of the iPhone, my all-time favorite cellphone. His shareholders adore him. His competitors respect and fear him. Plus, he’s accomplished all this while dealing with personal health issues. He is almost the greatest IT vendor CEO of the past 10 years. He’s my runner up.

The Best IT Vendor CEO of the First Decade of the 21st Century is (drumroll, please…): Marc Benioff, CEO of Benioff has not just created a billion-dollar company from scratch in the past 10 years, he created an entire industry, software as a service, or SaaS. The SaaS market has proven to be the one solid-growth IT market in this topsy-turvy decade. Not only that, SaaS permitted the existence of so many start-up companies that would not have gotten venture capital if they had to build out data centers to run their business operations.

And during this Great Recession SaaS has been a life saver to thousands of companies and their millions of employees who have used online services to support their organizations. Businesses large and small owe their existence or their survival to SaaS, which owes its success to Benioff, and that’s why he’s the Best IT Vendor CEO of the Decade.