The tech industry is legendarily built on the brilliance of college dropouts. Steve Jobs didn’t finish. Neither did Bill Gates or Larry Ellison.
But just because they didn’t all walk at graduation — or make it to their second semester — doesn’t mean they weren’t shaped by their years in the Ivory Tower.
Gates became friends with Steve Ballmer at Harvard, Ellison learned he was a pretty good computer programmer at the University of Illinois, and Jobs considered his time at Reed College among the most valuable experiences of his life.
Meanwhile, Peter Thiel — who actually did graduate from Stanford — now thinks college is such a waste of time that he offers $US100,000 scholarships to students who want to bypass college and start innovating now.
What can we say, everyone’s experience is different.
This is an update of an article originally by Aaron Taube.
Page had been a quiet child growing up in East Lansing, Michigan, but he began to blossom among fellow engineers at University of Michigan during his tenure as an undergrad in the early '90s, according to a profile by Business Insider's Nicholas Carlson.
At Michigan, he hung out with other tech-obsessed students, and became editor of a newsletter put out by Eta Kappa Nu, an electrical and computer engineering honour society. Those articles, notes Carlson, reveal collegiate-Page to be 'an opinionated, forward-looking thinker -- and a goofball.'
He was also a risk-taker. 'He proposed a project, and I don't remember the details, but I specifically remember I said, 'Larry, I don't know if you can do that,' his senior project advisor told Business Insider's Lisa Eadicicco. Page wasn't sure either -- the project involved hacking the Palm Pilot to 'do something it wasn't supposed to do' -- but he was willing to try.
(The risk paid off. Page got an A+.)
After two years at Queen's University in Canada, Musk studied physics and economics at the University of Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, The New Yorker reports Musk loved first-person shooter video games (he briefly considered going into the video game business) and he was so focused on his schoolwork that his mother would check on him to make sure he was eating and changing his socks every day, according to a 2012 Forbes story.
But even then, Musk had an entrepreneurial spirit -- Penn's alumni magazine reports that he and Ressi made money by charging other students to attend their house parties, an enterprise they took very seriously.
'It was a full-out, unlicensed speakeasy,' Ressi told Musk's biographer, Ashlee Vance. 'We would have as many as five hundred people. We would charge five dollars, and it would be pretty much all you could drink -- beer and Jell-O shots and other things.'
Mayer was already an overachiever by the time she enrolled at Stanford in 1993, having served as president of her high school's Spanish club, treasurer of its Key Club, and captain of both the debate team and pom-pom squad, reports Business Insider's Carlson.
Unsurprisingly, this intense focus on achievement continued in Palo Alto, where a former classmate describes her as having been 'very smart and very serious.'
But according to Carlson, Mayer wavered from her initial plan to become a doctor, finding that she preferred the problem-solving skills used in computer programming to the rote memorization needed to succeed in pre-med classes.
As an upperclassmen, Mayer excelled teaching younger students in her symbolic systems major, a course of study that combines linguistics, philosophy, cognitive psychology, and computer science classes.
Jobs grew up in the Bay Area, and his parents wanted him to go to college nearby at either Stanford University or the University of California, Berkeley.
But according to Walter Isaacson's biography, he wanted something more 'artistic' and insisted that if he could not go to Reed College, a liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon, he would not go to college at all.
Jobs dropped out after six months -- it wasn't worth the pricetag, he thought -- but a sympathetic dean allowed him to live on campus free of charge for another year and a half.
During his time at Reed in the early '70s, Jobs experimented with LSD, became a vegetarian (thanks in large part to the lacklustre offerings of the Reed cafeteria), and immersed himself in Zen Buddhism.
But while he was no longer technically enrolled at the school, he audited courses he was interested in, including a calligraphy class that would famously influence the Mac's typography.
In a 1991 Reed convocation speech, Jobs would say he learned more about generosity at the school than anywhere else in his life, and that the liberal arts requirements he once detested helped him 'in everything I've ever done, although I wouldn't have guessed it at the time.'
Ellison may be the world's fifth richest man, according to the most recent numbers from Forbes, but he was not a very good student.
He hated his time as a pre-med major at the University of Illinois, finding it difficult to focus his attention on memorising material he considered boring, according to Matthew Symonds' biography, 'Softwar: An Intimate Portrait of Larry Ellison and Oracle.'
In the book, Ellison says he once didn't start an exam for an entire hour because he was so angry about having to spend so much time answering questions he didn't care about.
He dropped out in 1964 after his mother became sick with cancer during finals week. The next year, he enrolled at the University of Chicago intending to pursue maths and physics, but left after a single term.
Which isn't to say Ellison's college experiences were a total waste -- the basic coding he'd learned in physics classes allowed him to start working as a freelance programmer.
That suited him better. 'My short attention span didn't work against me because I could get programs written very quickly,' he tells Symonds.
Zuckerberg was already a programming whiz when he got to Harvard in 2002. As part of his high school senior project, he'd built a music program called Synapse that learned what kind of music a listener liked and created playlists based on their tastes. 'The world took notice,' reported The Harvard Crimson in an article published before 'thefacebook.com' existed.
Shortly after creating Facebook during his sophomore year, Zuckerberg told The Crimson he was 'like a little kid. I get bored easily and computers excite me. Those are the two driving factors here.'
The story reveals an idealistic young man who said his two main goals in life were to create things he likes and never have a real job.
'Making cool things is just something I love doing, and not having someone tell me what to do or a timeframe in which to do it is the luxury I am looking for in my life,' he told The Crimson in a story published shortly before he dropped out to continue working on Facebook.
But despite his monkish work ethic -- when immersed in a project, he'd stop eating, sleeping, and socialising -- the young Zuckerberg could be ruthless. Instant messages published by Business Insider reveal that he spoke to friends about screwing over the Winklevoss twins, two students he had said he would help build a site similar to Facebook.
In 2011, Spiegel left Stanford three classes before finishing his degree in order to focus on the app, which he'd presented in a product design class as his final project.
Spiegel was social chair of Stanford's chapter of the Kappa Sigma fraternity, where he met his two fellow cofounders, Bobby Murphy and Reggie Brown, reports CNET.
As part of Kappa Sigma, Spiegel hosted parties at his father's $US4.25 million Los Angeles estate, CNET reports, and, as Vallywag discovered, sent out unfortunate emails in which he encouraged fraternity brothers to get blackout drunk ('can't wait to see everyone on the blackout express soon') and joked about urinating on a woman ('Did I just pee on Lily while assuming the big spoon position?').
After those missives were published on Valleywag, Spiegel told Business Insider he was 'mortified and embarrassed' by his 'idiotic' emails.
Gates took a 'rebellious' attitude toward college during his three years at Harvard in the 1970s, according to author Walter Isaacson.
Convinced of his own ability to get good grades without showing up for class, Gates would skip lectures for the classes he was enrolled in, in order to instead attend the lectures of classes he was not signed up for.
He was known for his intense work ethic, sometimes staying awake for 36 hours at a time, as well as his intense passion for poker, which he'd often play all night. Isaacson writes in Harvard Magazine that while Gates was great at the mathematical calculations involved in the game, he was not a very good bluffer -- a flaw that on one occasion caused him to hand his checkbook to his friend (and future Microsoft cofounder) Paul Allen in order to stop himself from losing more money.
During his sophomore year, he and Allen would create the first software program for the personal computer company Altair, a venture that would ultimately lead to Gates dropping out and the formation of Microsoft.
Leaning in from day one, the young Sandberg was an achiever since childhood. 'Sheryl never actually played as a child, but just organised other children's play,' her siblings have said.
Which doesn't mean her transition to Harvard was easy. Her freshman year, her political philosophy professor assigned a five-page paper, and she 'panicked,' she recalls in her book. 'I got a C. It is virtually impossible to get a C at Harvard if the assignment is turned in.'
But Sandberg recovered, and though the economics major rarely spoke up in class, she received top grades, wrote her thesis -- under the supervision of Larry Summers -- on 'how economic inequality contributes to spousal abuse,' and ultimately graduated first in her department, reports Ken Auletta in The New Yorker.
Not that she did nothing but study -- a 1990 article in the Harvard Crimson quotes a 'Sheryl K. Sandberg, '91' who'd been teaching aerobics for four years at the university's Malkin Athletic Center.
Thiel arrived at Stanford in 1985 with a pretty hefty intellectual résumé, having already established himself as an accomplished chess player and something of a maths wiz, Fortune reports.
In college, Thiel's gifts would be complemented by a growing contrarian streak. While majoring in philosophy, Thiel became particularly influenced by the French thinker René Girard, who believed that our unconscious tendency to imitate each other -- and the competition that springs from it -- is responsible for social conflict, explains The New Yorker.
Among his friends, Thiel was known as a sharp debater. 'He would demolish your arguments in five minutes,' his friend David Sacks tells the New Yorker's George Packer. 'It was like playing chess. He was libertarian, but he would ask questions like 'Should there even be a market for nuclear weapons?' He would drill down and find the weakness in your argument. He does like to win.'
Thiel expressed his growing conservatism by founding the Stanford Review, a right-wing campus publication that railed against what Thiel saw as the growing influence of multiculturalism and political correctness on campus. (It was, Forbes reports, not a universally popular publication.)
At Stanford, he and pal Reid Hoffman -- the left-leaning future PayPal executive and LinkedIn founder -- actually ran against each other in a student senate race, Forbes notes, but ultimately the two friends decided to combine forces.
Prior to enrolling at San Jose State University, Koum and his mother had to immigrated Mountain View, California, to escape anti-Semitism in his native Ukraine. He swept the floors of a grocery store to help the family make ends meet, but his real talent was in computer programming.
Forbes reports that Koum worked part time in college as a security tester at Ernst & Young, a job that brought him into contact with early Yahoo employee Brian Acton when Koum was sent to inspect the company's advertising system. Acton would later become Koum's WhatsApp cofounder.
Koum ultimately scored a part-time job at Yahoo, and dropped out of college when the company's cofounder, David Filo, called him on his cell phone during class to frantically ask for his help fixing a broken server.
As you might expect from the 'Shark Tank'-era Cuban, the outspoken Broadcast.com cofounder was a brash college student who embraced a work hard, play hard lifestyle, according to a 2012 interview with Elite Daily. ('I was a beast in college,' he says.)
As an undergrad at Indiana, Cuban snuck into MBA classes in order to soak in business knowledge and compare himself -- favourably, it turned out -- to the older graduate students, he said in that interview.
To pay for school, he started all kinds of business ventures, including promoting parties, running a campus bar, and teaching disco dancing lessons to sorority girls (Cuban went to college in the 70s), according to The Wall Street Journal.
He also was a member of the school's rugby team, a cohort that engaged in wild parties where team members set alcohol on fire and sometimes got naked together. These activities were documented by Deadspin in a story that included photos of the parties, published with Cuban's consent -- and his commentary.
When Holmes arrived at Stanford as a freshman, she was no stranger to campus -- she'd talked her way into Mandarin classes as a high school sophomore and finished three years of classes before she 'arrived' at school, notes The New Yorker.
But her tenure at Stanford didn't last long. The summer after her freshman year, she worked in a lab at the Genome Institute in Singapore (she was, after all, fluent in Mandarin). When she got back to school, the New Yorker reports, she suggested to her chemical engineering professor, Channing Robertson, that the two start a company: She'd invented a way to do multiple tests at once using a single blood drop and wirelessly transmit the results back to a doctor, she told him, and she'd filed a patent for it.
Robertson encouraged her to at least consider finishing school first, but she was dead-set on the project. 'I got to a point where I was enrolled in all these courses, and my parents were spending all this money, and I wasn't going to any of them,' she told The New Yorker. 'I was doing this full time.'
Ultimately, her parents let her take the money they'd set aside to pay for Stanford and use it to seed the company. (Robertson eventually left Stanford and joined her at Theranos full-time, notes Fortune.)
Bezos quickly decided he was not cut out for physics in the same way some of his classmates were -- it was 'awe-inspiring' how good they were, he told the Guardian in 2001 -- gravitating instead toward computer science.
An 'extremely intellectually curious person,' according to a former classmate, Bezos was a member of the school's Quadrangle eating club, and, in keeping with his original dream, served as president of the Princeton chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. Fast Company notes that he was also an enthusiastic beer pong player.
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.
As an artistic high school student in Wellesley, Massachusetts, the young Stone informed his teachers that, while he would do his absolute best to pay attention in class, he would not be doing any homework, he tells Daniel Pink on Pink's podcast, 'Office Hours.' It worked.
This bold philosophy was less of a hit among his professors at Northeastern University, where he'd enrolled because it was expected. 'I wasn't into it,' he says, so he accepted an offer to transfer to University of Massachusetts - Boston. He wasn't into that either.
But he got a job at the publishing house Little, Brown and Company lugging boxes -- a gig Stone, an artist, finagled into a job designing book covers for the company. 'I thought to myself, don't people go to college and graduate to get a job like this? It seems like I could kinda skip the next two years and skip ahead,' he recalls. He dropped out -- a decision he credits in his book as one of the best of his life.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.