Celebrating a Unique Regional Treasure,
Retiring Tech Guru Jim Cookinham
This week, Crain's Cleveland Business was good enough to publish my thoughts about the enormous contributions of Northeast Ohio's leading tech evangelist, Jim Cookinham, who recently announced his retirement. Since the piece won't be available online to non-subscribers for a couple of weeks, I'm publishing it here. And a special welcome to new readers from Crain's.
Jim Cookinham's Lasting Legacy
It certainly didn’t hurt that he looked like Moses, sent over from central casting with a silver beard, booming voice and almost pastoral presence to play the role of a region’s technology evangelist.
But that was only part of Jim Cookinham’s enduring influence. Now that he’s announced his retirement from his day job, it seems a proper time to assess the man and try to understand what made him such a widely admired leader.
Almost from the first day he began his assignment as head of the newly formed regional software association, NEOSA, I followed Jim’s experiment in grassroots economic development with enormous interest. Cleveland’s civic leadership, after all, has a history of ulitimately treating such initiatives poorly. For many years it permitted a small-business organization, COSE, to blossom into a national model as an independent entity, only to absorb it in a takeover when the larger and more traditional companies grew tired of being overshadowed. After all, we have a reverence in this town for grand plans, rather on the order of the old Soviet five-year plans, which attempt to control events from the top down. For at least the last generation, that’s taken the form of following McKinsey-style, community-wide strategic initiatives.
They have their place, of course. Unfortunately, they also tend to leave out elements crucial to the mix. In a presentation to the now-defunct Enterprise Development organization a few years ago, Cleveland native Mario Morino, who built a fortune as a software entrepreneur, had a piercing observation about how to best encourage economic growth in the 21st century. “I want to argue that serendipity should be a part of a region’s economic policy,” he said, noting that structure sometimes blinds us to opportunities. “I think entrepreneurism is structured chaos. Where some people see pandemonium, other people see opportunity.” Effective leadership, he argued, will only come from someone who can build trust and win credibility from the old guard as well as from those who are more comfortable with chaos.
Jim Cookinham intuitively understood all that. Soon enough, in fact, he came to embody the description. A former naval officer, trained as a nuclear engineer, he also had a less buttoned-down side. As an early adopter of personal computers, he loved talking with geeks about technology, while never forgetting the larger picture—people.
Like all of us, he had his flaws. Some thought he kept the operational details of NEOSA a little too much to himself, and failed to quantify the economic effect the organization was having. That led to his funding being squeezed, which resulted in a loss of the group’s autonomy and an eventual merger into the Greater Cleveland Partnership.
And yet, he was only too happy to share the spotlight with those whom he believed had the best interests of the region at heart. For a time during the dot-com boom, he was the poster boy for the region’s new economy. If there was a software conference convened or a story written about the subject, he was the one inevitably featured. But when then-Mayor Jane Campbell appointed a charismatic young cashed-out dot-com millionaire, Tim Mueller, to head her development department, he welcomed it, even though it diluted the attention paid to him. He selflessly welcomed all the help he could get for his cause.
Later, we got another glimpse of Cookinham’s character when NEOSA lost its independence. Instead of griping, he continued to evangelize about his issues, only this time as an institutional insider with an outsider’s perspective. He must have won internal converts, because he was given control of the chamber’s training and human development portfolio. True to form, he kept innovating, convening a host of ongoing peer network discussions, where CEOs, CFOs and other cohort groups could bolster each other’s learning curves through structured conversation. In many ways, it was really a continuation of the monthly sessions of structured serendipity he convened for NEOSA in the tasting room of a local brewery, where he helped knit together a thousand business conversations and connected like-minded people as few can.
Still, I think his real legacy will flow from countless private sessions, where he diligently served as a sounding board for hundreds of people, listening to their business dreams, offering advice when he could, and connecting them with others who might help them realize those plans.
I continue to encounter the fruits of that work. Only recently, I met a fellow named Doug, who marveled over how Jim would meet him for a series of chats in the café section of a local Heinen’s supermarket, during a time when he was in transition. To this day, he can’t quite get over how wise, how astute and especially how caring Jim Cookinham was.
It was said of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral and other important structures, that if you seek his monument, just look around you. I’d say the same is true for Jim Cookinham.