By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc. March 23, 2016
The news of former Intel president, CEO, COO and chairman Andrew “Andy” Grove’s death was not unexpected. At age 79, Grove enjoyed a full life despite significant health problems, including prostate cancer and Parkinson’s disease. But the way he spent those years, both in and out of the tech industry where he was a legendary figure, is worth considering and celebrating.
As virtually all his obituaries noted, Grove was born in 1936 to a Hungarian Jewish family that immigrated to the U.S. in 1950 after surviving both the Nazi and Soviet occupations. After receiving engineering degrees, he was hired by Gordon Moore at Fairchild Semiconductor, then became the first hire at Intel after the company was founded 1968. During Grove’s years at Intel, he saw its revenues grow from $2,672.00 in its first year to $20.8B in 1997, the year he retired.
During those three decades, the company faced significant challenges that Grove helped solve and survive. The most disruptive occurred less than a decade after Intel’s launch while the company was still focused on DRAM development and production. Following problems, including Japanese memory makers dumping their products at below cost prices, Grove shifted the company’s focus to microprocessors and helped negotiate a contract with IBM to exclusively use Intel chips in their new personal computers (PCs).
As a result of this agreement, relationships with other PC OEMs and a legendarily close partnership with Microsoft, Intel became the leading supplier of CPUs during the massive growth in sales of IBM-compatible, Windows-based “Wintel” PCs during the 1980s and 90s. That resulted in a huge increase in the company’s valuation – during his decade as Intel’s CEO (1987-1997), Grove instituted and oversaw strategies that raised the company’s market cap from $4B to $197B, making it the world’s 7th largest company.
Among Grove’s efforts was what eventually became one of the tech industry’s most compelling marketing strategies: Intel Inside whose signature was a sticker with the company’s logo prominently displayed on partner OEMs’ PCs and laptops. The campaign began in 1991, shortly before Intel began manufacturing PC motherboards and developing other core PC technologies that would impact the industry for years to come, including the PCI Bus, PCI Express (PCIe) and the Universal Serial Bus (USB).
It’s difficult today to fully comprehend the deep, abiding influence of Intel Inside. Twenty-five years ago, personal computing was transitioning from being a serious hobby among the technically literate to becoming a transformational pastime for people and businesses of every kind. As a result, Intel Inside came to represent a sort of “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for products that most buyers barely understood. That made the company and its core partners arbiters of public trust and understanding in all things technological.
However, that position was not free of occasional controversy and pain. Intel’s PC market leadership appeared so unassailable that some questioned whether it was actively quashing competition (as close partner Microsoft was doing in the browser space). Then in June 1994, what became known as the FDIV bug was discovered in early versions of Intel’s new Pentium processor line that affected the accuracy of floating point calculations.
The company argued, accurately, that FDIV would only affect a tiny fraction of PC end users and calculations. But by that time, Intel Inside had become one of the world’s most recognized and respected brands, and the company suffered a severe backlash. In December 1994, Intel did the right thing and offered to replace affected Pentium chips at their owners’ request. Though the number of eventual number of requests was modest, the financial impact was significant—resulting in a pre-tax charge of $475M against Intel’s earnings.
Regarding the FDIV bug, Andy Grove commented in his memoir, “Only the Paranoid Survive,” that “Bad companies are destroyed by crises. Good companies survive them. Great companies are improved by them.”
The same can be said of individuals, including Grove. In 1995, after being diagnosed with prostate cancer, he strove to learn all he could about the disease while pursuing aggressive treatment. But he also spoke out publicly about his condition (including being the subject of a 1996 Fortune cover story) in order to inform others and to reduce peoples’ fears and misconceptions about cancer and treatment options.
After leaving the CEO position in 1998, Grove remained as Intel’s chairman of the board (until November 2004). But in 2000, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. As he did following his cancer diagnosis, Grove committed himself to learning as much as he could and to speaking publicly about the condition. He also donated $22 million to Parkinson’s research and pledged a $40 million bequest to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
Concerning the resistance to sharing information that he found among some medical researchers, Andy Grove said, “What is needed is a cultural revolution that values curiosity, follow-through and a problem-solving orientation and also puts the data being generated in full view, scrutinizable by all.”
Grove may have been referring to data about Parkinson’s disease but the underlying values of intellectual curiosity, discipline and collaboration that he recommended seem to me to be broadly applicable in both his adopted nation and the wider world.
In a 2000 interview with Esquire magazine, Grove said America should be “Vigilant as a nation to have tolerance for difference, a tolerance for new people,” another sentiment that seems particularly appropriate in the current political climate.
It is right to be saddened by Andrew Grove’s passing, but billions of people and millions of organizations have benefitted from what he and his co-workers at Intel accomplished. Though impacted and shortened by illness, Grove’s life was well and fully lived, deserving both our gratitude and remembrance.
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