Why ex-Microsoft chief John W. Thompson remains one of America’s most important tech executives

BY Nii Ntreh June 20, 2024 3:18 PM EDT
John W. Thompson. Photo Credit: LinkedIn

In a field still slowly waking up to Black ingenuity, John W. Thompson has already established himself as a man you’d like to listen to on the business of selling tech. One of the most accomplished Black business leaders and prominent technology executives in the United States, his career, which commenced modestly over five decades ago, has left an enduring imprint on the tech landscape.

He is widely recognized and hailed as an innovative and forward-thinking leader who consistently pushes the limits with groundbreaking concepts. Success has been a natural consequence of his lofty and demanding approach.

One of the hallmarks of his glistening career is his instrumental role in coordinating the merger between Symantec and Veritas Software Corp. This historic amalgamation, valued at around $13.5 billion, stands as one of the most expansive tech mergers in American history.

Thompson began his journey into the world of gizmos and software with education at Florida A&M University, where he successfully obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration, in 1971.

Subsequently, he was employed at the formerly colossal International Business Machine (IBM) Corporation as a sales representative, initiating a professional trajectory that would significantly redefine his career and revolutionize the tech industry.

To enhance his managerial aptitude and proficiency, he pursued advanced studies at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, culminating in the attainment of his M.A. degree in management science in 1983.

Throughout his 28-year tenure at IBM, he assumed numerous leadership positions and undertook various sales, marketing, and software development responsibilities. He also served as the general manager of IBM Americas and a member of the company’s worldwide management council, where he played a pivotal role in the company’s transformation into a prominent global player in the technology industry.

Leading one of the mergers that reshaped tech history

Thompson assumed the role of CEO and Chairman at Symantec Corporation in California in 1999, after leaving IBM. This promotion rendered him the only African-American to have led a major tech company at the time.

Now rebranded as Gen Digital Inc., Symantec Corp under Thompson’s leadership solidified his reputation as a strategic head and adept negotiator, driving the company toward a period of growth and advancement. He would most likely say his magnum opus was orchestrating a monumental merger between Symantec and Veritas Software Corp. in 2004.

Thompson’s ten-year tenure as a leader played a pivotal role in the remarkable transformation of Semantic Corp. into a prominent figure in the realms of security, storage, and systems management solutions. Under his guidance, the organization delivered top-notch products to a diverse global clientele, encompassing individual consumers and large-scale enterprises. Furthermore, Thompson catapulted a modestly successful outfit from $600 million in value to an impressive $6 billion. Although he retired from his esteemed position as CEO on April 4, 2009, Thompson continued to serve as the Board Chairman until October 2011.

Creating and scaling a sustainable business firm has been one of the most gratifying experiences for Thompson. As an active investor in early-stage technology companies, he assumed the role of CEO at a budding startup, Virtual Instruments, in 2010, a position he held until April 2016. The subsequent year, he moved on to Riverwood Capital Management, serving as an Executive Advisor until March 2018.

He also commenced his partnership with Lightspeed as a Venture Partner in May 2018, bringing over four decades of leadership and entrepreneurial prowess to guide the company through multiple strategic changes and transactions.

Thompson joined the board of Microsoft in February 2012. On February 4, 2014, he assumed the role of independent chairman of Microsoft Corporation, succeeding the company’s founder, Bill Gates. Thompson played a pivotal role in leading the search for Microsoft’s next CEO, resulting in the selection of Satya Nadella.

In addition to his involvement with Microsoft Corp., Thompson has held positions as a member and chairman on various boards. These include Rubrik Inc, Inxeption Corp., Wetlands America Trust Inc., Illumina Inc., Liquid Robotics Inc., Virtual Instruments Corp., United Parcel Service Inc., Seagate Technology Holdings PLC, Nortonlifelock Inc., Nisource Inc., among others.

Thompson had the honor of serving on various esteemed government commissions, namely the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, the National Infrastructure Advisory Committee, and the Silicon Valley Blue Ribbon Task Force on Aviation Security and Technology.

His journey has been a testament to the enduring strength of vision, leadership, and innovation.