NVIDIA CEO JEN-HSUN HUANG SHARES PASSION FOR INNOVATION AT FIRE CONFERENCE

by Bob Sherbin

In a wide-ranging discussion during the morning session of Mark Anderson’s annual Future in Review conference, NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang named three key requirements for a successful tech company: a willingness to pursue projects where success is not guaranteed, hiring employees who absolutely love their work, and defining success not just in financial terms but in how your work helps people.

Jen-Hsun Huang at FiRe 2010

Many of the 200 or so attendees at the Palos Verdes, Calif., event have helped run significant IT or biotech firms of their own, or work in university research centers. But most put down their Blackberries and looked up from their keyboards to listen to Jen-Hsun, who stood out among their khaki and oxford cloth shirts in his trademark leather jacket and black trousers.

Jen-Hsun covered a lot of ground in the interview, moving from the rise of parallel computing to the coming revolution in augmented reality and the huge success that awaits the tablet market. He pointed out that demand for leisure-based digital content – ebooks, TV programs, movies – is dramatically greater than that for software, and that tablets are the perfect way to consume it.

Toward the end of the nearly hour-long session, Anderson, who works out of Friday Harbor on Washington’s San Juan Islands and has the demeanor of a friendly neighborhood bear, called for questions from the floor. It was in response to a query about NVIDIA’s culture when the audience appeared to be listening most carefully.

“If you want to build a successful company in my line of work, you have to develop an institutional tolerance for failure and lack of predictability,” he said, amid many affirmative nods. “You don’t know where the next invention will come from when you’re out on the fringe, and that’s hard for many people to grok. It’s important that employees understand that while we don’t want to fail, the journey is important, too. Teaching employees that, so they’re culturally comfortable with it, makes them want to innovate.”

Earlier in the day, Microsoft CTO Ray Ozzie talked about the growing importance of the cloud. John Seely Brown (former head of Xerox PARC) together with his co-chairman at the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation, John Hagel, talked about new models for business collaboration increasingly common in China and India that have more in common with the dynamism of World of Warcraft social networks than anything that’s taught in business schools.