The Many Lessons of Andy Grove

Time 1997We lost a great business leader earlier this year. His name was Andrew S. Grove, known to many as Andy Grove.

He survived Nazi-occupied Hungary as a child, then Soviet-controlled Hungary, immigrating to the United States at the age of 20 in 1956.

He received a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from U.C. Berkeley and became a star engineer at Fairchild Semiconductor.

He left the stability of Fairchild Semiconductor with Silicon Valley legends Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore when they co-founded Intel. Together they later entirely reinvented Intel from a manufacturer of memory chips to the dominant producer of microprocessors.

He was Intel’s CEO from 1987 to 1998, the famous “Intel Inside” years when personal computing exploded from the hobby to the consumer market.

He wrote the legendary book Only the Paranoid Survive, published in 1996 and still a must-read for anyone who wants to understand innovation and the power of creative destruction.

For many years he co-taught a course in strategy with my dear friend Robert Burgelman at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

If you think everyday people always had the internet, email, streaming video, and smart phones, you have a loose grasp on current events, let alone history. Andy’s leadership at Intel took us from the 8086 to the Pentium chip, from monochrome to color displays, from floppy to CD disks, from no hard drive to software that could be installed.  If you didn’t live through the transformation of the universe from analog to digital, from buying hardware and software at Computerland and Electronics Boutique to Best Buy and Costco, it’s hard to explain the magnitude of this growth cycle. Andy is one of those guys who really changed the world.

Okay, you get the point, about 0.001% of mortal beings have a resume close to his. You can read his full bio on Wikipedia. I want to share something more personal about him, the key takeaways from the few times I met him in person during roadmap briefings at Intel in the 1990s. Among the many lessons I learned from Andy Grove, here are five that continue to guide me daily:

  1. Creative Destruction Is Real – Whatever product you ship today is already obsolete, no matter how well it is selling. If you are not working on the replacement for it, someone else is. That is why you have to be paranoid. You will always be correct if you presume you are about to be outperformed in the marketplace of goods and service. Never get comfortable, never rest on your laurels, or you will be gone in a heartbeat, wiped off the map while you are collecting your awards for last year’s success. I learned from Andy that almost every startup that presumes it is built to last is almost certainly on a crash course with obsolescence, that the vast majority of even robust corporations today last about half as long as a human life. Companies don’t reinvent themselves, they are reinvented by courageous, visionary people.
  2. Beware the Strategic Inflection Point – By the time a market has fully morphed at scale, it’s way too late to react. You can’t see a strategic inflection point coming, you can only acknowledge it in hindsight while confessing your memoirs. Sorry, Monsieur Business Plan, the landscape changes in real time! Because you have learned to be paranoid, you are going to figure out one dreary morning that something you are doing in your company is hugely wrong. Some product you are readying for release is going to tank no matter how much you spend on marketing. Remember when Bill Gates discovered the internet? Remember when Mark Zuckerberg discovered mobile? Those were Intel-inspired moments. They turned their companies on a dime the same way Andy helped turn Intel on a dime when they realized the market for memory chips had commoditized and microprocessors were the way forward. I learned from Andy to always remain nimble, that sunk cost is always sunk cost, eat it and move on. Achieving competitive advantage before others see it coming is where your investments must be all the time.
  3. Science Is Inescapable – No matter what your market cap might be, you can’t fake math. Pithy slogans don’t make better computers, engineers do. For Moore’s Law to work (roughly twice the computing power will be available every 12 to 24 months for the same cost) staggering volumes of calculations have to take place on a tiny silicon chip without the transistors melting down. If you want to win at the engineering game, it takes the boldest and brightest team of advanced engineers you can assemble. They need the time to do the math, which is why Intel was already designing the 486 chip while shipping the 286. You can’t predict when the equations will be solved, you can only form a thesis and test your working models until they clear quality assurance. I learned from Andy that there are no sustainable shortcuts in quantifiable outcomes, the minimum viable product be damned! If you try to cheap your way through a poorly constructed algorithm, science will have its way with you and the result won’t be a proud moment.
  4. Constructive Confrontation Works – A lot of people who didn’t grow up in the Intel culture found it an impossible place to survive. Intel was a place where undisciplined, random conversation was never the norm. Almost anything anyone said could be challenged directly and aggressively by anyone in the hierarchy. Even when you were visiting Intel as a channel partner, anything you said could get shoved down your throat as instantly as you said it. Was this nice? It wasn’t meant to be nice. It was meant to improve products, driving ceaselessly toward unattainable perfection. That was how Intel maintained design and manufacturing leadership for a generation, by always challenging assumptions, never accepting compromise or forging an unholy consensus simply to move on. It isn’t the right culture for everyone, but at Intel, you bought into it or got your walking papers. I learned from Andy that in constructive confrontation, it’s always the idea that gets attacked and never the person. You might feel that you are being attacked, but you aren’t. Your ideas are being made better or mercifully eviscerated.
  5. Resilience Is a Mandate – Imagine a guy who made it from the Holocaust to the highest level of American thought leadership—all the obstacles, all the challenges, all the knock-downs, all the reinvention. To embrace the example of Andy Grove is to embrace the notion of resilience as the single greatest motivator available to anyone at any stage of emergence. You don’t give up, you don’t give in, you don’t quit. You always expect more from yourself. You learn from your mistakes, you study your failures, you learn from your adversaries. Want to survive? Want to triumph? Want to leave a legacy? There is no other way. I learned from Andy that you stay in the game, you look forward at opportunity, and you try again—only harder. Resilience isn’t a nice-to-have. Resilience is fuel for the soul.

Andy was a living example of realizing possibility through discipline. It is extremely rare to find an innovator with startup DNA who can personally evolve into the CEO of a multinational corporation. It is equally rare to find a top-notch engineer who embraces consumer marketing as a key strategic initiative. Andy championed the “Intel Inside” campaign as a branding mechanism that made an otherwise invisible component a necessity for personal computer manufactures to tout. When the consumer press seized upon an obscure failing in a sample of Intel microprocessors, Andy accepted the criticism as a byproduct of his brand promise. He insisted his team correct the deficiency with renewed quality assurance rather than defend the company’s position with arguments the consumer would never understand. He was book smart, business smart, and street smart all at the same time. He gave back way more than he ever took off the table in every way imaginable.

If you ever worked on one of my teams, I probably bought you a copy of Only the Paranoid Survive and quizzed you on it a week later. Andy’s words, thoughts, and ideas remain that important to me. He was an industry icon and a human being impossible for me to forget. I hope none of us ever forgets Andy. He remains a truly one-of-a-kind inspiration.


This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Photo: Time Inc.

CliffsNotes as Long Form

Neal Gabler always makes me think; last week he made me think a little harder.  His op-ed piece in the New York Times on August 13, 2011 “The Elusive Big Idea” (which I added to the Corporate Intelligence Radio Library) caused me once again to reflect on our spiritual respect for the technological achievements that too commonly enter our lives without enough awe.  Thousands of years of civilization and learning have taken us through The Renaissance, The Industrial Revolution, and now Digital Transformation, putting on our desks and in our hands more MIPS (millions of instructions per second) than humanity ever could have envisioned just a half century ago, with Moore’s Law in little jeopardy of compromise anytime soon.  And the question remains: what are we doing with it?

Gabler is a prolific author and senior fellow at the Annenberg Norman Lear Center at USC who suggests in his recent essay that in this post-Enlightenment Age, we may for the first time be going backward intellectually, and that as “information narcissists,” we are allowing our brain cycles to be consumed by endless temporal factoids at the cost of more thoughtful inquiry.  I can’t do a better job of making the point than Gabler, so I invite you to read the full piece which is linked above, but his concern stems from the impact of the parade of dribbling tidbits from the internet that distract us from the harder work of digesting and discussing what were previously known to us as Big Ideas, the most recent of which were summarized in The Atlantic and didn’t seem so big to Gabler (me either!).  We store and remember these media snacks for their brief life cycles, failing to reserve more extensive internal processing power for the ambiguous and abstract.

Since I have spent almost my entire career as part of the problem and never the solution it would be hard for me to get on this bandwagon without impeaching a life’s work, but I have to say, I am sympathetic to Gabler’s critique.  I remember well our teachers’ fears when we were growing up, watching and memorizing ceaseless half hour episodes of Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, that our fragile attention spans were being decimated by the power of television.  Every sitcom with its full 22 minutes of content has a beginning, middle and end, it tells a story with resolution that is mostly satisfying and even has three laughs per script page.  Prior to that you’d need an hour of dramatic TV for story, prior to that a 2 hour movie, prior to that a 3 to 4 hour stage play, and prior to that a novel that might be as brief as Huck Finn but could be as long as Moby Dick.  Indeed, our generation was the beneficiary of staggering efficiency.  We welcomed those little yellow books then called Cliff’s Notes covering a novel with about 90% compacting — but then again, that still left a thirty or so page pamphlet that had to be read.  The second year I was in college something crawled out of cable called MTV, and that took storytelling down to just about three minutes, even more efficiency, and many of these micro video operas were created by TV commercial directors, who could tell a story in 30 seconds.  When YouTube gets the job done in under 8 seconds, I say that’s nice, but that was the easy part of the optimization, that just knocked out the last 22 seconds, the hard work of leaving Herman Melville in the dust was already diced and strained long ago.

How about that, an entire moral tale bypassing hundreds of reading pages, fully consumable in 22 minutes with two breaks for bathroom and pantry runs — O Brave New World (that’s a line from The Tempest, which is a play that was written by Shakespeare, who was a kinda like Steven Spielberg, back when Queen Elizabeth I would have had her mobile tapped if phones had been invented)!  So if our attention spans are now down to 140 characters because that’s the Twitter standard adopted from mobile texting, how do we keep “longer forms” viable and where do we get into trouble when we don’t?  I don’t have a solution anymore than Gabler does, because efficiency really is attractive for anyone who does not know what they are missing in the nuances of polysyllabic adjectives and adverbs, but I do worry about the ramifications.  Because so many stories are now reported in sound bites, those featured in stories have learned to communicate with directed outcomes in sound bites.  I am not too worried about this for entertainment purposes, if someone enjoys an 8 second tree squirrel ballet on YouTube and doesn’t wish to sit through The Mahabharata, I see it as their loss, but the sun will come out tomorrow.  Eventually all culture could be destroyed, but after a few generations no one will remember.

What I do worry about is news and government leadership.  Currently we seem satisfied to be internalizing critical issues in sound bites, and that is why we are being treated like idiots by our incumbent and aspiring leaders.  They are taking for granted that we don’t have the patience to get in the weeds, so they are feeding us unsprouted seed fragments.  They are failing at devising levels of substance because it is not required of them, we are accepting their failure, and the cycle repeats.  We must make this stop.

The first decisive media sound bite I can remember was the Ronald Reagan game winning “There you go again” to Jimmy Carter in their 1980 debate, halting then President Carter from launching back into a long form malaise of more pedantic matters.  I sense that much of Reagan’s future success was defined real-time in that smack down, and we learned to like him for style whether or not he followed through with substance.  It seemed quite unscripted and endearing, and it worked.  Today we listen to endlessly planned runs at sound bites, poor imitators of extemporaneous reduction, not even extracting them from context because they are context.  We must make this stop.

How can we obstruct the content obstructionists?  Again, Gabler is much more eloquent on the problem than I am, but I fear neither of us has a good solution.  Here is what I can tell you — gadgets and efficiencies are going to continue to accelerate, and even if we could break free of needing to interpret consequential texts and tweets and posts, our kids are in it for the short haul.  All I can suggest is that we do everything we can to teach them an appreciation for reading, help them to understand that multitasking while useful is the antithesis of focus, and lead by example by not letting any leader off the hook with a chorus of sound bites and no carefully composed libretto.  The information is there if we want to read it or hear it or debate it, more than has ever been available is now being ignored, but we have to be willing to invest the time.  Just like you won’t accept second-rate technology, stop accepting second-rate garbage in the form of info morsels where substance is required.

Feel free to still enjoy YouTube and reruns of Gilligan’s Island.  Society will survive the culture shock, but where brevity is meant to mask laziness among issues that are critical to our sustenance, that has to be called out.