Monday, May 20, 2013

Just found a Tom Wolfe piece

Tom Wolfe wrote a great Esquire magazine article about Bob Noyce and Intel in 1983, that Jim Eaton just sent to me, saying "this captures the HP of 'our era', don't you think?"

I thought it good enough to reproduce a few lines here, for the nostalgia buffs, but also to observe that I was just on the East Coast for a Milken Foundation / U of Penn three-day entrepreneurship conference, and the contrast with "the Valley ways" was still stark.

The article was in Esquire Magazine,, December 1983, pp. 346-374, titled "The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce: How the Sun rose on Silicon Valley".  It can only be copied for academic use, which this is.


One day John Carter (at 36, Fairchild's youngest CEO ever) came to Mountain Vlew for a close look at Noyce's semiconductor operation. (this was Fairchild, after the Shockley exodus).  Carter's office in Syosset, Long Island, arranged for a limousine and chauffeur to be at his disposal while he was in California. So Carter arrived at the tilt-up concrete building in Mountain Vlew in the back of a black Cadillac limousine with a driver in the front wearing the complete chauffeur's uniform: the black suit, the white shirt, the black necktie, and the black visored cap. That in itself was enough to turn heads at Fairchild Semiconductor. Nobody had ever seen a limousine and a chauffeur out there before. 

But that wasn't what fixed the day in everybody's memory. It was the fact that the driver stayed out there for almost eight hours, doing nothing. He stayed out there in his uniform, with his visored hat on, in the front seat of the limousine, all day, doing nothing but waiting for a man who was somewhere inside. John Carter was inside having a terrific chief executive officer's time for himself. He took a tour of the plant, he held conferences, he looked at figures, he nodded with satisfaction, he beamed his urbane Fifty-seventh Street Biggie CEO charm. And the driver sat out there all day engaged in the task of supporting a visored cap with his head. People started leaving their workbenches and going to the front windows just to take a look at this phenomenon. It seemed that bizarre. 

Here was a serf who did nothing all day but wait outside a door in order to be at the service of the haunches of his master instantly, whenever those haunches and the paunch and the jowls might decide to reappear. It wasn't merely that this little peek at the New York-style corporate high life was unusual out here in the brown hills of the Santa Clara Valley. It was that it seemed terribly wrong.

A certain instinct Noyce had about this new industry and the people who worked in it began to take on the outlines of a concept. Corporations in the East adopted a feudal approach to organization, without even being aware of it. There were kings and lords, and there were vassals, soldiers, yeomen, and serfs, with layers of protocol and perquisites, such as the car and driver, to symbolize superiority and establish the boundary lines. Back east the CEOs had offices with carved paneling, fake fireplaces, escritoires, bergeres, leather-bound books, and dressing rooms, like a suite in a baronial manor house. 

Fairchild Semiconductor needed a strict operating structure, particularly in this period of rapid growth, but it did not need a social structure. In fact, nothing could be worse. Noyce realized how much he detested the eastern corporate system of class and status with its endless gradations, topped off by the CEOs and vice-presidents who conducted their daily lives as if they were a corporate court and aristocracy. He rejected the idea of a social hierarchy at Fairchild.

Not only would there be no limousines and chauffeurs, there would not even be any reserved parking places. Work began at eight A.M. for one and all, and it would be first come, first served, in the parking lot, for Noyce, Gordon Moore, Jean Hoerni, and everybody else. "If you come late," Noyce liked to say, "you just have to park in the back forty." And there would be no baronial office suites. 

The glorified warehouse on Charleston Road was divided into work bays and a couple of rows of cramped office cubicles. The cubicles were never improved. The decor remained Glorified Warehouse, and the doors were always open. Half the time Noyce, the chief administrator, was out in the laboratory anyway, wearing his white lab coat. Noyce came to work in a coat and tie. but soon the jacket and the tie were off. and that was fine for any other man in the place too. There were no rules of dress at all, except for some unwritten ones. Dress should be modest, modest in the social as well as the moral sense. At Fairchild there were no hard-worsted double-breasted pinstripe suits and shepherd's-check neckties. Sharp, elegant, fashionable, or alluring dress was a social blunder. Shabbiness was not a sin. Ostentation was.

During the start-up phase at Fairchild Semiconductor there had been no sense of bosses and employees. There had been only a common sense of struggle out on a frontier. Everyone had internalized the goals of the venture. They didn't need exhortations from superiors. Besides, everyone had been so young! Noyce, the administrator or chief coordinator or whatever he should be called, had been just about the oldest person on the premises, and he had been barely thirty. And now, in the early 1960s, thanks to his athletic build and his dark brown hair with the Campus Kid hairline, he still looked very young. 

As Fairchild expanded, Noyce didn't even bother trying to find "experienced management personnel." Out here in California, in the semiconductor industry, they didn't exist. Instead, he recruited engineers right out of the colleges and graduate schools and gave them major responsibilities right off the bat. There was no "staff," no "top management" other than the eight partners themselves. Major decisions were not bucked up a chain of command. Noyce held weekly meetings of people from all parts of the operation, and whatever had to be worked out was worked out right there in the room. Noyce wanted them all to keep internalizing the company's goals and to provide their own motivations, just as they had during the start-up phase. If they did that, they had the capacity to make their own decisions.

The young engineers who came to work for Fairchild could scarcely believe how much responsibility was suddenly thrust upon them. Some twenty-four-year-old just out of graduate school would find himself in charge of a major project with no one looking over his shoulder. A problem would come up, and he couldn't stand it, and he would go to Noyce and hyperventilate and ask him what to do. And Noyce would lower his head, turn on his 100 ampere eyes, listen, and say: "Look, here are your guidelines. You've got to consider A, you've got to consider B. and you've got to consider C. " Then he would turn on the Gary Cooper smile: "But if you think I'm going to make your decision for you, you're mistaken. Hey... it's your ass."

Sounds just like the HP under Packard or Hewlettt.  Gawd, THOSE were the days...


Anonymous said...

Chuck --

Here are a few books that might interest you and others (you've probably already read them):

1. "The Valley of Heart's Delight: A Silicon Valley Notebook 1963-2001" by Michael S. Malone

This is a collection of newspaper/magazine columns about life in the Valley -- technological, entrepreneurial and social. There are articles about Hewlett, Packard and Bob Noyce. It's very entertaining...although a bit dated these days.

2. "The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley" by Leslie Berlin.

This is a fairly expansive biography of Noyce -- his life and times and his successes and failures in business and in life. It's an excellent read!

3. "Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age" by Michael A. Hiltzik

The biography of the largest collection of missed opportunities of the modern age. These are some of the saddest stories of organizational infighting ever committed to paper.

4. "Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age by Joel N. Shurkin

A great biography of this severely flawed genius.

Steve Witten

chuck said...

I agree with all of your choices. Malone's treatment is his wonderful tongue in cheek style. Berlin's is very solid except for omitting the Program Development Systems (PDS) known as Intellecs. These products built the demand for microprocessors; at one point they produced 20% of Intel annual revenue (six times that of the chips they supported) and 200% of revenue. They were the reason Intel survived the Memory Chip meltdown but they never got the credit.
"Dealers" was far better than the muckraking "Fumbling the Future".
I have recently become enamored with Beckman's role with Shockley; it centered around Caltech being the leading computer spawning university in the early 1950s, which virtually NO ONE knows, and Arnold trying to get his old colleague (and newly appotd Caltech professor) Shockley to make his huge computer smaller. That is why he funded Shockley Labs, and it was to be in Monrovia next to Caltech but Shockley's mother got sick in Palo Alto.

Who knows when the fickle finger of fate will point?

Anonymous said...

I would suggest a couple of others (not related to Silicon Valley):

1. "ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World's First Computer" by Scott McCartney.

This book tells the story of the development of ENIAC at the University of Pennsylvania by Presper Eckert & John Mauchly. Eckert and Mauchly are probably the two least-known computer pioneers in America. Their work was groundbreaking, however.

2. "The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal" by M. Mitchell Waldrop.

This is the biography of J.C.R. Licklider -- one of the founders and the first director of ARPA. The beginning is a little slow but it's a worthwhile read.