Steve Ballmer threw chairs, Steve Jobs was ruthless and Elon Musk is a slave-driver: the titans of the American tech industry are often driven, but rarely palatable. And it’s not a new phenomenon. In the 1980s and 90s, Intel CEO Andrew ‘Andy’ Grove was widely admired despite his reign of terror, thanks to the reversal of fortune he was able to effect within Intel and, in a sense, all of Silicon Valley. Grove died on 21 March 2016 at the age of 89.
In 1968 Grove was the first employee hired by Intel’s founders, Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce. He came with them from Fairchild Semiconductor, the company that invented the planar process. Intel understood far better than Fairchild the potential of this discovery, and the MOS technology inextricably linked with it. In 1971 the company put the world’s first commercially available microprocessor on the market.
Ten years later – Grove had since worked his way up to company president – Intel earned most of its daily bread on memory. When the Japanese semiconductor industry began making inroads into this business, Grove was the one who championed a change of course. With an eye on the PC’s ascent, Grove insisted that Intel needed to return its focus to the processor.
Though the first CPU designed under his auspices (the IAPX 432) was a flop, Grove’s vision turned out to be a winner. Grove oversaw these years of explosive growth as the company’s CEO from 1987 to 1997.
Grove reinforced that success with brilliant marketing. The industry looked askance at his Intel Inside campaign, but with it Grove ensured that his chips weren’t just anonymous ‘raw materials’ for electronics, but a visible brand like IBM or Apple that consumers valued. And for which they would pay a higher price.
The third important factor in Intel’s success during that time was actually the brainchild of Grove’s predecessor, Moore. He was able to convince his customers that Intel’s ducks were so neatly aligned that they didn’t need a second source. That enabled Intel to manoeuver itself into a monopoly-esque position.
Grove’s tenure at the helm coincided with the rise of Silicon Valley as we now know it. In the 1960s and 70s the hippie movement strongly influenced Californian culture and lifestyle, even in the business community. At Intel, Grove put an end to the relaxed atmosphere; he transformed the company into the high-performance machine that is now the norm in Silicon Valley’s corporate culture.
Those familiar with the phenomenon called Grove ascribe his drive to excel to his youth, when twenty-year-old András Gróf fled his homeland of Hungary during the revolution in 1956. As someone who had worked his way up from the status of penniless immigrant, Grove expected his employees to show at least as much dedication.
Grove was obsessed with understanding the direction in which the world was changing before others did, and seeing how his company could capitalize on it. He was all too aware that every misstep in the turbulent semiconductor industry was extremely expensive, and possibly fatal. He explained this fundamental stance in his successful management book Only the Paranoid Survive, probably the best-known of the seven books he published during his lifetime.
Grove held tightly to the belief that insight of the kind he was looking for can only arise from controversy. He hounded his employees to get the truth out into the open. Screaming, ranting; nothing was off limits. Meetings with him were known as the Hungarian Inquisition. Not pleasant, but incredibly effective.