I don’t know if younger engineers realize how great was the esteem in which the Hewlett-Packard (HP) company was held in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Even though I never worked for HP myself, I remember hearing things like the fact that members of the HP sales force were instructed to act as advocates for their customers to make sure that problems got solved and things got done.
Actually, I do have one HP story of my own. In the early 1980s, a couple of years after I’d graduated with my degree, I was working for a very small company (I was the sixth person to join, and I arrived the day after the desks and chairs, so everyone else said that I was really lucky because for weeks they had been working sitting on the floor).
Anyway, I was reading a technical article about Cyclic Redundancy Checks (CRCs) in a print magazine (do you remember the good old days before the Internet?) and I saw a reference to another article on Linear Feedback Shift Registers (LFSRs) that had appeared in an internal HP publication several years earlier.
So I called directory assistance and asked for the nearest HP office. When the receptionist at HP answered I explained what I was looking for and she said that she would have to hand me over to someone else. So I was put on hold listening to music for a few seconds. When I was passed over to the technical support folks, one thing that really impressed me was the fact that the receptionist had already briefed them, so I didn’t have to explain everything all over again. Whoever I ended up talking to said that they would look into it and get back to me.
Two days later a big package arrived from the Netherlands. In it was a photocopy of the original article I had requested, a telephone-book-sized catalog of all of HP’s products, and a hand-written letter apologizing for the delay (what delay?). The letter said that they were sorry, but it had taken them some time to track down a copy of that old internal publication. And all of this for little old me – the most junior of junior engineers – color me impressed!
Even after all of this, all I really knew about HP was that HP stood for Hewlett-Packard. I didn’t know anything about the founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard themselves or the tale of how they formed their company. And then, a few months ago as I pen these words, someone recommended that I read Bill and Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World's Greatest Company. So I did, and it was great.
I really should have written this review before, but you know how it is – there’s always something else to do. The end result is that I’m writing this review from memory, because ever since I finished the book it’s been on permanent loan to various family members and friends.
In some ways this is a strange book. It’s not just a biography of Bill and Dave because it’s also a reasonably comprehensive history of the company. Contra-wise, it’s not simply a history of HP, because entwined throughout are biographies of Bill and Dave.
We start off being introduced to Bill and Dave in their childhood years and see how they grow into young men and form HP as a two-men-in-a-garage operation. Then we follow them as HP grows from strength-to-strength to become a multinational giant.
There are so many interesting things about this story that I really don’t know where to start. For example, Bill and Dave had a rule that the company storerooms would be left unlocked so that engineers could access any parts and equipment they needed to experiment with at any time of the day and night and over the weekends. One night when Bill (or Dave – I can’t recall which one) found a storeroom that had been locked by a new manager, he cut the padlock off with a pair of bolt-cutters and left a note that the room was to remain always open.
Bill and Dave also instigated something called “Managing by walking around,” which basically meant that they expected their managers to wander around talking to everyone so as to ensure that they knew what their people needed and also that the junior members of staff had a way to pass thoughts and ideas up the chain of command.
The really impressive thing is the way in which Bill and Dave managed to re-invent both themselves and the company as it grew in size and complexity. I was also amazed to discover that HP was one of the first high-tech companies to instigate Flextime, and stock offerings for employees, and all sorts of other things like this.
When a mini-recession came, rather than letting employees go like other companies, HP instead persuaded everyone to take every second Friday off along with a corresponding 10% cut in salary. In addition to guaranteeing the loyalty of the workers, this meant that at the end of the recession HP had a full complement of staff and were ready to take full advantage of the expanding market.
Although the majority of the book is devoted to the glory days of HP, these is some mention of what happened after Bill and Dave eventually stepped down; the subsequent leadership of John Young and Lew Platt; and the disastrous years under Carly Fiorina.
One thing that really comes out of all of this is the fact that – in addition to creating HP – Bill and Dave played a large part in starting the Silicon Valley we know and love today and creating many of its traditions and institutions. Also of interest is discovering what happened to Bill and Dave after they left HP and the various charities and foundations to which they devoted their time and money.
The bottom line is that this is a really good book that will be of interest to anyone involved in electronics and computers, and that should be required reading for anyone in a management position.
Interesting. Although english is not my first language, i've managed to go through 'The Soul of a New Machine' and it really got me hooked. I need to get my hands on this one too. It would be interesting to confront what it says abouth ' disastrous years under Carly Fiorina' with the 'Tough Choices. Memoir' by... Carly Fiorina.
HP test equipment was always of the most amazing quality. Just shows what can be achieved without bean counters around. Have a look at
About a guy who retrieved a wet old HP counter of 1963 vintage from a dumpster and dried it out and it just worked. 50 MHz, all transistors, no ICs, nixie display, and could go up to 3 GHz (in 1963!) with plugins. I used to swear by the old HP RPL calculators too. Somehow "Agilent" doesn't have the same ring to it, though their equipment is also good gear.
I must read this book, sounds like a great read, thanks Max.
We lionize these gents and for good reason, but I have to wonder how their management style would have differed in today's environment--hit the quarterly numbers for Wall Street now. That's all that matters.
Something tells me they probably would have taken HP private again had that environment stifled them.
Many will the remember the "Carl & Jerry" series by John T. Frye in Popular Electronics magazine starting in 1954. Two fictional high school kids experimenting and constructing electronic circuits in their garage workshop and lab, similar to Bill's and Daves's beginnings. I wonder if by any chance Bill and Dave unknowingly inspired the Carl & Jerry stories.
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