Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: 2010s: The Decade in Review

ZDNet's top enterprise CEOs of the 2010s

Here is our list of the enterprise technology leaders that had the most impact in the last decade.

ZDNet’s top enterprise CEOs of the 2010s Larry Dignan and Bill Detwiler discuss ZDNet’s list of the enterprise technology leaders that had the most impact in the last decade. Read more: https://zd.net/2PG6OCM

Picking the top enterprise technology CEO of the decade isn't easy for a bunch of reasons, but one big one is tenure. CEOs rarely last an entire decade. Nevertheless, there is a bevy of chiefs that had a significant impact on enterprise technology as well as their companies. Here's our list of CEOs of the decade. 

First, a word about methodology. ZDNet's panel of editors -- TechRepublic's Bill Detwiler, Larry Dignan, Chris Duckett, Steve Ranger -- looked at everything from revenue growth to customer ratings to vision and leadership. We wanted at least six years at the helm, and luckily for us, many tech CEOs started in 2014. You also can't forget the intangibles that warrant a mention. That mix doesn't yield one slam dunk winner. In addition, the most influential enterprise technology company of the decade -- Amazon Web Services -- has a CEO that started in 2006 leading the company as a senior vice president, but has a cast of characters. In addition, AWS is a subsidiary of its much-larger parent, Amazon. When we say larger, we mean revenue. AWS accounts for most of Amazon's operating income. 

More best of the decade: The PC was supposed to die a decade ago. Instead, this happened | A decade of malware: Top botnets of the 2010s | A decade of hacking: The most notable cyber-security events of the 2010s Device of the decade: Why did it take nine years for the iPad to get its own operating system? | CNET's Decade in Review

But we digress. Here's our list of top CEOs of the decade and why they stick out. 

The team

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, AWS CEO Andy Jassy, and AWS CTO Werner Vogels

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Jassy at AWS re:Invent 2019

AWS highlights how the cloud is a team sport. You can't credit one exec for the success of AWS. Sure, Amazon Bezos launched this science project with the customer-obsessed DNA of the e-commerce giant. But AWS CEO Jassy is scaling the company and has been at the helm since 2006 as senior vice president before being named CEO in 2016. CTO Vogels is the tech visionary. We could also give a nod to Adam Selipsky, who was AWS operating chief before leaving to be CEO of Tableau in 2016. Meanwhile, the sheer cadence of AWS services is blistering. 

While AWS doesn't fit into a neat CEO listing (Bezos or Jassy?), it's hard to deny that the company changed how enterprises operate. Cloud-first is a real strategy. AWS was first out of the gate, rallied developers, and now is a juggernaut that is expanding beyond infrastructure, storage, and compute to machine learning, artificial intelligence, databases, augmented reality, and its own silicon

AWS' re:Invent conference this year highlighted the cloud service provider's role in the enterprise and how it is helping companies transform. Running your infrastructure in the cloud was a bit of an oddity in 2010. In 2019, the cloud is the base from which everything runs. The transformation in perception is mainly due to AWS. 

For the nine months ending on Sept. 30, AWS delivered operating income of $6.6 billion on revenue of $25.07 billion. For context, Amazon's North American e-commerce business generated an operating income of $5.13 billion on revenue of $117.1 billion in the same period. 

Here are AWS' annual revenue tallies:

  • 2018: $25.65 billion
  • 2017: $17.46 billion
  • 2016: $12.2 billion
  • 2015: $7.88 billion
  • 2014: $4.64 billion
  • 2013: $3.1 billion

Change agent

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

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Nadella at Build 2019

Microsoft started the decade as a company that may have been losing some of its enterprise clout. Today, Microsoft is arguably more important to the enterprise as it scales Azure, leverages Office and becomes a big player in applications such as customer relationship management software. Notice what we didn't mention: Windows. 

Nadella took over for Steve Ballmer in 2014, and the company wasn't exactly in crisis but needed focus. Nadella brought focus, honed Azure, acquired LinkedIn, and set the company's north star as productivity. He also focused on revamping the Microsoft culture

Nadella also moved Microsoft from a company that revolves around Windows to one that is multiplatform. Hell, Microsoft is even a big open-source player. Nadella quickly got real about what Microsoft could achieve in the mobile space, (mostly) giving up on smartphones in favor of making Microsoft's apps available everywhere. You can argue Office is better on iOS and Android than Windows. 

Despite years of predictions of the death of the PC, Microsoft's Surface range has forced PC makers up their game significantly and has also proved a decent money-maker for the company, too. We could go on, but Microsoft today is seen as a counterweight to AWS dominance in the enterprise. 

Nadella also has delivered solid growth. For fiscal 2015, Microsoft reported revenue of $93.58 billion. For fiscal 2019, Microsoft reported revenue of $140.35 billion and is projected to deliver sales of $156.3 billion for fiscal 2020. 

Back in the game

AMD CEO Lisa Su

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AMD CEO Lisa Su

Yet another of the cabal that gained the top job in 2014, under Su AMD has moved from an absolute also-ran to once again providing a genuine challenge to Intel's hegemony. The rubber is just starting to hit the road as the Eypc and Zen processors start to make their impact felt on cloud platforms and a return to being a part of top tier laptops.

At the end of the decade, AMD is in its best position since the turn of the century glory days with the Athlon chips. Few companies can boast of equally good compute and GPU silicon, and as the world pushes forward with machine learning and AI workloads, that combination could be potent. For the enterprise, AMD's resurgence is a welcome sight. Why? AMD offers a second option to both Intel and Nvidia. Su gets a shoutout for setting up AMD over the last five years to compete in the new decade. 

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Customers and conscious

Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff

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Benioff at Dreamforce 2019

Asha Barbaschow

Marc Benioff, co-CEO of Salesforce, is another cloud pioneer (trailblazer in Salesforce speak) and knows how to grow organically and via acquisitions. But his biggest contributions may be more about vision. 

Benioff was among the first to a) tout customer first and b) see trust as a corporate asset, and c) lay out a social vision for corporations. 

Salesforce has become an enterprise staple, and its growth strategy now revolves around selling multiple clouds. Salesforce has evolved from a CRM company to one that's more of a customer data repository that enables companies to digitally transform. Salesforce now touches analytics (Tableau and Einstein), customer-based transformation (Customer 360), industry-specific clouds, and integration (MuleSoft). 

But the social hook may turn out to be Benioff's ultimate legacy. Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) is becoming a mantra on Wall Street and a big investment category. Benioff wrote in his recent book Trailblazer the following: "Lots of businesses talk about values, but in turbulent times, when they matter most, executives often forget to operationalize them. They see values as expensive luxuries." 

Benioff has his social value pulpit due to Salesforce's sales growth, which has doubled from fiscal 2020 from 2017.  

Cloud transition poster child

Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen

Today, Adobe is seen as a cloud digital transformation enabler. A decade ago, Adobe relied on its Creative Suite and licensing revenue and was viewed as a niche player. 

Narayen, one of the few CEOs that got in a full decade of work, laid the blueprint for how software companies can transition to the cloud. It's a path that has been followed dozens of times. 

Transitioning to the cloud looks obvious today, but Adobe took its lumps. When Adobe bought Omniture in 2009, Narayen laid out a vision where customers would meld content, returns, data, and engagement. Today, Adobe is an enabler of customer experiences, analytics and marketing, and a go-to enterprise vendor. 

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Oracle's Catz

The force

Oracle Corp CEO Safra Catz

Safra Catz became co-CEO of Oracle in 2014 with Mark Hurd as Larry Ellison became founder. To gauge Catz's impact, all you have to do is listen to Oracle's earnings conference calls over the last decade. Simply put, Catz is the steady hand that keeps everything running well. She's also the person Wall Street turns to when Ellison goes off on one of his repeated rants like the ones here, here or here. In addition, Catz has explained Oracle's transition to the cloud and the services model. Oracle is undergoing a transition, but there's little doubt that the company is in good hands. 

Enterprise without trying

Apple CEO Tim Cook

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, is known for Apple Watch, milking the iPhone cycle for a decade and transitioning the company for an era of services amid slower hardware growth. The big question now is how Apple carves out a future post peak iPhone. The Apple Watch and Airpods aren't going to be enough on their own, and it's not likely that smart glasses or Apple cars are arriving any time soon. 

What he isn't known for is courting the enterprise. That's unfortunate since Cook has cut app deals with IBM, Cisco, SAP, and Accenture, and made a bevy of moves to move into the healthcare space; expect to see more there. Meanwhile, Apple has become a staple in the enterprise. 

Cook can be credited for making Apple an enterprise staple. This headline -- IBM CIO: Mac users perform better, more engaged than Windows users -- wasn't possible a decade ago. 

Master salesman

SAP former CEO Bill McDermott

Unlike many of the CEOs on this list, Bill McDermott had almost an exact decade to evaluate. McDermott became co-CEO of SAP in February 2010 and left in October this year. He refocused SAP on its customers and recognized that the future of enterprise software is the cloud. Most obviously, he spent big on acquisitions, spending around $70 billion on series of deals to push SAP beyond just enterprise resource planning to a broader set of offerings around customer experience, sales, and delivery. But perhaps just as importantly, he shifted SAP from a company focused on on-premise software from one aiming at the repeatable and regular revenue from cloud computing. There's still more to do to make SAP's product roster more comprehensible, and it's still seen by many as big and expensive, but McDermott has given his successors a strong foundation to work from.

Thinking big

Dell Technologies Chairman and CEO Michael Dell

Michael Dell started the decade as CEO of a company that needed transformation to diversify away from PC and server sales. He ended the decade with a company that is an enterprise technology conglomerate rivaling IBM with ownership of EMC, VMware, and a bevy of other units. In 2013, Dell took his company private. In 2015, Dell acquired EMC for $67 billion. That move gave Dell ownership of VMware, which is now the middle of Dell Technologies cloud platform. Now, Dell Technologies is public again and is planning to be a digital transformation engine, eyeing developments such as edge computing.

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VMware's Gelsinger

Image: VMware

Fiercely independent

VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger

Pat Gelsinger ends the decade with a new boss (Michael Dell instead of EMC's Joe Tucci), but what hasn't changed is his commitment to keep VMware an independent company and continue its transformation from a virtualization software vendor to cloud services provider. Taking over the company in 2012, Gelsinger had made strategic partnerships with AWS, Google, IBM, Oracle, Nvidia, Nokia, and others, even when those partnerships didn't directly benefit Dell's bottom line. He's also made strategic acquisitions to help fulfill his "any device, any application, any cloud" vision. VMware bolstered its mobile offerings with the acquisition of Wandering WiFi (AirWatch) and Apteligent. They bought E8 Security in 2018 and in August 2019, announced plans to purchase cybersecurity company Carbon Black. Geslinger's cloud plans have been marked by acquisitions such as Heptio, Bitnami, Avi Networks, and Pivotal (also owned by Dell as part of its EMC purchase).

In the next decade, VMware will undoubtedly face competition from tech heavyweights like Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle, which are also pivoting to the cloud, and from new technologies like Kubernetes, which could reduce demand for on-premise installations of vSphere, VMware's virtualization software. But, with double-digit revenue growth, $2 billion in cash, and expected free cash flow of $3.57 billion for fiscal 2020, Gelsinger has put VMware in an excellent starting position.

The stabilizer

HP former President and CEO and HPE former CEO Meg Whitman

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Whitman at HP

When former eBay chief Meg Whitman took over Hewlett-Packard in 2011, she was HP's eighth CEO in just 12 years, and the storied computer company was in crisis. In 2010, Mark Hurd resigned amid controversy. Whitman's immediate predecessor, Leo Apotheker was fired by the board less than a year after taking the helm. HP was missing earnings, and its stock was in freefall -- dropping 25% on a single day in August 2011. Whitman would need to right a ship that was reeling from a series of missteps, including the slashing of R&D budgets, an unsuccessful tablet launch with the TouchPad, the purchase of Autonomy for $10 billion (a 79% premium and a deal criticized by analysts for being too expensive), the decision to kill the webOS device business (HP had just paid $1.2 billion for Palm in 2010), and the plan to sell off HP's personal computer division.

Whitman almost immediately scrapped plans to sell the PC business, noting at the time that the unit was too intertwined with the rest of the company, and the costs of separation were too high. She embarked on a restructuring plan that combined the PC and printer divisions, resulted in over 45,000 job cuts by 2014, and culminate in HP being split into two publicly-traded companies... Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and HP Inc in 2015. Whitman would serve as chairman of HP Inc and CEO of HPE. Whitman left HP's board in 2017 and stepped down as CEO of HPE in 2018. Since Whitman's departure, neither HP nor HPE has returned to the glory days of the older Hewlett-Packard (Xerox is even pushing an HP buyout). Still, she deserves a spot on this list for stabilizing what was a very sick patient.

Turning a big ship

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty

IBM is still trying to find a route back to its glory days when it was vastly bigger than all the upstart tech companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google, which now towers over it: IBM's revenue has been sliding since 2012 with only a modest uptick in 2018. Rometty's decade is notable for how IBM looks vastly different than it did in 2010. 

For now, it's decided that artificial intelligence (in the shape of its Watson software) plus cloud and maybe even blockchain are going to be the key. Ginni Rometty's big -- $34 billion -- gamble is to buy Red Hat and use that as a way to grab a big piece of orchestrating all the different cloud computing services that enterprises will want to use. While the deal was only done in June, Rometty will have to quickly show how it will give IBM the boost that it needs. 

Playing the longest game

Huawei Founder and CEOE Ren Zhengfei

Now into his fourth decade at the helm of the Chinese giant, the 2010s were the decade where Huawei stepped out of the backroom of telco carrier equipment and moved into the showroom of premium smartphones as well as the data center.

Thanks to being the poster-child of trade ructions being the US and China, the company now has devices without American componentry. It is hard at work on its own operating system. Globally, Huawei is a networking giant. 

Being banned from 5G rollouts in certain countries has not held the company back, even as questions remain about its ownership structure and how closely tied it is to Beijing. For its part, Huawei says those concerns are fabricated, and it now wants to sue people.

Correction: Jassy has been at the helm of AWS since 2006 as senior vice president before being named CEO in 2016.

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Bill DetwilerChris Duckett, and Steve Ranger contributed to this report.  

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The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.