Tech investors did fairly well in 2014, as the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite outperformed the broader S&P 500. In fact, many of 2014's best-performing large cap stocks came from the tech sector, including Microsoft, Apple, Intel, and Facebook.
But not every tech stock was a winner this year -- many proved immensely disappointing, burning investors in the process. Although not every underperforming tech stock seemed to be a byproduct of poor management -- highfliers falling back to Earth is the nature of volatile stocks, after all -- the disappointing performance of a few CEOs stood out.
Honorable mention: Rory Read, Advanced Micro Devices (NASDAQ:AMD)
Some might fault with my choice of Rory Read, as he abruptly resigned in October. Still, Read was in charge of AMD for most of the year.
His surprise departure only amplified the pain of AMD shareholders, but was largely justified. Under his stewardship, which began in August 2011, AMD continued its multiyear decline -- shares are down more than 90% since 2006 -- and badly underperformed both the market and chief rival Intel.
Read's strategy focused on shifting the semiconductor manufacturer away from its longtime reliance on the traditional PC, diversifying by betting on semi-custom solutions including the latest video game consoles. But that diversification is far from complete, and in a year in which the PC market surged slightly, and Intel stock rallied by 40%, AMD should have been performed better.
Runner-up: Ginni Rometty, IBM(NYSE:IBM)
IBM's 2014 decline -- about 13% -- is not particularly notable for a tech stock, but it is significant for a company of IBM's size and scope.
Although IBM has blamed a rapidly shifting market, its underperformance appears to be the byproduct of a mistaken corporate strategy finally coming home to roost. Rather than attempt to generate real organic growth, IBM has spent the last few years engaged in financial engineering, leveraging its balance sheet to deliver on its long-standing commitment to an earnings per share figure of $20 by next year.
CEO Ginni Rometty inherited that target from her predecessor, but has done little to alter IBM's strategy. Big Blue has paid out a steady dividend, but shares are down more than 10% since Rometty took over at the beginning of 2012. IBM's recent underperformance has raised the specter of potential activist intervention -- Cantor Fitzgerald's Brian White believes the company could come under fire if it cannot right the ship next year. Should an activist take a stake in the company, replacing Rometty could be among the top priorities.
Winner: Dick Costolo, Twitter (NYSE:TWTR)
After an exciting IPO, Twitter has had a disastrous 2014 in which it shed more than 40% of its value. With its focus on news and current events, few expected Twitter to approach Facebook's usership numbers, but the stock has still proven an immense disappointment. In particular, management has struggled to conclusively define its vision for the company.
In September, venture capitalist Peter Thiel said Twitter had a lot of potential, but remarked that it was a "horrible mismanaged company." That sentiment appears to be widely shared; in a recently published profile, The Wall Street Journal reported that those close to Costolo characterized him as "a reactive thinker who bounces from one idea to the next."
On the whole, Twitter's earnings reports have not been terrible, with the company exceeding expectations this year more often than not. But Twitter's guidance has been underwhelming, and its long-term version has been murky. Twitter shook up its management team earlier this year (losing, among others, its COO), but if results don't improve, Costolo could be the next to go.