Virginia E. Rometty. She didn't generate a whole lot of attention this year but the first female CEO (and since October, Chairman) of International Business Machines Copr. (NYSE:IBM) deserves credit for taking over the No. 2 computer maker during a time of slow economic growth and shifts in enterprise computing.
Rometty, 54, succeeded Samuel Palmisano as CEO on Jan. 1, then as Chairman later. Over the past year, IBM has delivered steady gains in earnings, revenue and respect, probably filed for more patents than any other U.S. company and took steps to position itself for the future.
For example, the Armonk, N.Y., company has made key new initiatives toward open computing, which it calls PureSystems; the cloud, especially in a new alliance with AT&T (NYSE:T); computer security and shrewdly siting new research and data centers in emerging markets including Poland, Brazil, India and even Costa Rica.
Throughout, Rometty kept a low profile, even at the Masters Golf Tournament in Georgia, where IBM was a corporate sponsor at a golf club that didn't admit women as members. She watched the golfers and held some unofficial receptions for clients, knowing full well that Augusta National Golf Club would repeal the ban right after the tournament.
Compare IBM's solid pace with the soap opera, financial woes and layoffs at No. 1 Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE:HPQ), where its latest CEO Meg Whitman, 56, didn't come through the ranks, has inspired no loyalty and has eroded shareholder value around 45 percent.
By contrast, Rometty has boosted the total return on IBM shares this year 5.5 percent, including boosting the dividend 13 percent in the second quarter, for the 17th consecutive year.
Terry Tai-Ming Guo. He's the founding CEO of Hon Hai Precision Industries of Taiwan (TPE:2317), which with its subsidiary Foxconn International Holdings (HKG:2038), is now the No. 1 contract maker of electronics.
By now, everybody knows that Hon Hai's 1.2 million workers in Taiwan and China are “slave laborers” who make virtually every product for Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and many more for HP, Samsung Electronics (KSX:005930) and others.
Two years ago, Chinese workers chafing under brutal conditions, rioted in some plants after too many of their colleagues committed suicide under pressure. Guo at first announced Hon Hai would by a million robots over the next two years to deal with the situation.
Goaded by labor activists in the U.S. and Asia, through China Labor Watch and major unions into acting, Guo this year permitted the Fair Labor Association, an industry group, into his operations. Its reports found many abuses, especially of overtime, employment of minors and other exploitation. Apple CEO Tim Cook visited two plants during his visit to China.
The upshot: recent reports say conditions have improved marketedly. Adolescents don't seem to be on factory lines now. Inspectors have been given chairs. Overtime laws are better enforced. More safety equipment has been installed.
Gou, 62, has made a bold start. If his feet are kept to the fire, the Dickensian atmosphere of this Chinese tycoon's plants could see marked improvement next year.
Nate Silver. The creator of FiveThirtyEight.com did more for polling and politics than most this year by rigorously adhering to his unbiased use of data and statistics to correctly call the U.S. presidential election, the percentage spread between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, as well as all but two Senate races.
This 32-year-old economist who is a master of statistics first used his skills successfully in sports before applying them to politics. He's midway through a three-year licensing deal with New York Times Co. (NYSE:NYT), which gives him a global platform.
Perhaps Silver's biggest proof that statistics work when wish-fulfillment doesn't was the Election Night appearance by Republican guru Kark Rove, former special counselor to President George W. Bush, on Fox News in which Rove denied that had Ohio already voted for President Barack Obama.
Statistics and data are crucial in technology. The biggest companies like IBM, HP and Oracle Corp. (NASDAQ:ORCL) have spent billions acquiring statistical modeling and analytics companies.
Debate over crucial issues headed by global warming has been hijacked by crackpots who claim the fear is a “hoax” when all the data prove otherwise.
Silver, whose book, “The Signal and the Noise,” (Penguin, $27.95) has sold well, deserves credit for sticking to statistics this year.
Peter Thelsinger. The manager of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., he's in charge of Curiosity, the rover that landed on Mars on Aug. 5 and has been sending troves of new data about the planet back here.
Curiosity is likely the technology event of the year, a triumph of engineering and technology, the best combination of public-private participation. Think of the decades of preparation in electrical, mechanical and aeronautical engineering that went into the latest rover, then consider all the analytic tools that were shipped with it. Now the data communication tools are tapping its electronic brain for geological, meterological and astrophysical data.
Thelsinger, 67, is a physicist who's been with NASA since 1967, save for a brief interval, and has been part of earlier successes with Voyager, Mariner and Galileo. He's also proving that planetary exploration can be undertaken with no danger to humans.
Jane Lubchenco. The head of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as well as Undersecretary of Commerce for oceans and atmosphere, Lubchenco deserves credit for marshalling the national response to weather crises, especially Hurricane Sandy this year.
It was the early warning system at the National Hurricane Center, supercomputers that churn out data and intelligent analysis that predicted the killer hurricane in October. It was NOAA's forecasts made leaders like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie order people away from the Atlantic shore and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to close mass transit, order evacuations and prepare for the worst.
NOAA can't restore power, fix water damage or recover lives lost in the storm, but its operations under Lubchenco, 65, an Obama appointee with degrees in biology, zoology and ecology, have marketedly improved from the days of Hurricane Katrina.
Like Curiosity, NOAA has been using tools from the top technology leaders in the public interest.
Now, on to 2013!