Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Interview with Roy Clay

Roy Clay, one of HP's unsung heroes,was beaming yesterday afternoon when I walked in.  He lives in Montclair, CA up above the Oakland Hills looking out across San Francisco Bay.  It's a pleasant modest home, up a winding curvy road that would be envied in Monaco.  He was seated in a wheelchair--at 88, he told me he was 'glad to be here,' that he felt a couple of years ago that he might not be.

The smile was the same as always; his shy but clear eyes and soft voice belied his strong handshake.  We'd last met a few years ago--maybe twelve--when Ray Price and I were doing research for our book, The HP Phenomenon.  Which, by the way, is still selling, and seems to have gotten a bit of rejuvenation with the new publishing of Robert Burgelman, Webb McKinney and Phil Meza's book about HP CEOs, Becoming Hewlett-Packard.  

For that interview in 2004,we did not have the benefit of much background material on Roy, but the past decade has been good for getting his legacy more firmly grounded.   And this time, with the enthusiastic support of Gardner Hendrie, a long-time Computer History Museum (CHM) devotee and the inventor of the first 16-bit minicomputer in the world (HP's was second), we managed to get a video crew into Clay's home to record his recollection of some of the tumultuous times and innovations that he experienced.

Clay was granted an op-ed piece in the San Jose Mercury-News in 2014, speaking to the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.  Headline: "It could have been me!"  Clay indeed was arrested, handcuffed, and hauled out of town when a teen-ager just after World War II--fearing for his life.  A few years later, he was the first African-American (not called that, then) to graduate from St. Louis University, in mathematics.  He eventually found work at the fabled Lawrence Radiation (Livermore) Labs, but in the 1950s, blacks weren't allowed to buy a home in the Livermore Valley, so he commuted from San Francisco.  He recalled three other African-Americans on the staff at LRL.

A new opportunity opened in Palo Alto in 1962, when Minnesota-based start-up Control Data opened a software research center.  Clay not only was the first black hired in 'high-tech' in what would become Silicon Valley, he was the first CDC hire in Palo Alto, and CDC was the first computer company in the Valley building 'true computers' (IBM of course was already in the Valley, but only with a peripherals division, one that would invent nearly all disc drive technology).  Clay soon found that nothing important was going to happen in Palo Alto for CDC--everything of consequence was in Minnesota at headquarters (premonition of Xerox and XeroxPARC?) or at Seymour Cray's home in rural Wisconsin.

So he answered a small advertisement in the Palo Alto Times for a 'systems programmer' for Hewlett-Packard, and after a couple of interviews, Dave Packard and Kay Magleby hired him as HP's first professional software developer, and first professional African-American.   Clay recalled for us when he met Art Fong, HP's first Asian-American professional who had started for HP twenty years earlier.  Clay averred that Packard was merit-based and certainly 'color-blind' -- quite a trait for those times.

Our book mentions Clay's role several times, and is to date the only HP-based book that does so.  But we did not realize the degree to which Clay influenced things at a time that HP was pretty nervous about being in the computer business.   We'll cover some of that in subsequent posts, but for now, let me just note a couple of other factoids.

Clay nurtured other African-American colleagues, including Ken Coleman in his early career.  And Clay became Tom Perkins' 'go-to' guy for a while on Venture Capital 'evaluations,' especially for Tandem Computer since most of their early team came from HP, and in fact Clay had hired them.

We tallied it up--Clay was early at CDC and HP, and evaluated Tandem, Intel, and later Compaq for Perkins, and he trained Coleman who in turn was instrumental at Silicon Graphics and Apple, and Coleman's wife was likewise at Software Publishing which spawned a series of software firms.

So it isn't surprising that some later called him "the godfather of Silicon Valley software."  And in fact in 2003 he was inducted into the Silicon Valley Hall of Fame, alongside Hewlett and Packard and Noyce and Moore.  He is today quite proud of that, rightfully so.

But I was equally, maybe even more, pleased to learn what else he did.  For starters, he was the first African-American on the Palo Alto City Council, winning three terms and once becoming Vice Mayor.  And he was the first of his race to be allowed to join the Olympic Club in San Francisco (after they lost a lawsuit about women and minority exclusion)--although they ordered him 'never to show up.'   An order which he ignored--and a decade later, he became President of the Olympic Club Golf Association, organizing eventually the biggest tournaments they'd ever held.

We left his home somewhat awestruck by the glimpse we had gotten of this remarkable individual--not just for his accomplishments, but for his humility, his perseverance, and his perspective.  HP, and the Valley, and all of us really, have had such a privilege to have him in our community.

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