Richard Jansen looks at the life and work of Andrew Grove, a founding father of the silicon age
CHEMICAL ENGINEERING has been described as sitting on the boundary between innovation and industry; between breakthrough and business. There is perhaps nobody alive who personifies this ideal more than Andrew Grove.
Though you may not think of it as a natural industry for a chemical engineer to make their mark upon, Grove has acted as a shepherd of the computer age. Over the years he’s been a teacher, a businessman, a scientist and an author.
Grove was the third person ever to be employed by technology giant Intel, and over the years has acted as its president, chair and CEO. Even now, at 77 he still works as a senior advisor to the company – a title that is far from honorary.
Though he is far from a household name, Grove’s biggest exposure to the public comes not from his work itself but from the media. In 1997 he was chosen as Time Man of the Year (it would take two more years for this title to be changed to “Person of the Year”), marking the 50th anniversary of the invention of the microchip – the technology that would form the heart of his career and help change the world we know entirely.
If it wasn’t for the fact it’s true, you would say the story of Grove’s life reads like a rags-to-riches cliché of the fable of the American Dream.
Though he was born to a reasonably comfortable middle-class Jewish family in Budapest, by the time he was ten, the boy then known as András István Gróf had already survived several life-threatening situations.
At just four years old a near-fatal bout of scarlet fever had left him partially deaf. A few years later Nazi Germany had occupied Hungary, leaving his Jewish family in dire straits. While Andrew and his mother escaped capture by assuming false names and hiding with friends, his father was sent to a labour camp and his grandfather was murdered in the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp.
Later in life Grove spoke of days spent playing in the cellar during the Red Army’s siege of Budapest, hearing the rumble of Russian bombs and artillery fire raining down on the streets overhead. The family endured yet more persecution when occupying forces rampaged through the city, including the rape of his mother by Soviet soldiers.
Even once the obvious perils of the war were over, Grove was faced with the prospect of spending his teenage years in a country under the control of a tyrannical Soviet regime. He dreamed of becoming a journalist, but abandoned the idea when he saw he would have to bend his work to the political whims of the day. Instead, he turned to chemistry, which he deemed a perfectly objective discipline. Even so, he was a young visionary and scientist in a Hungary that dispatched hundreds of thousands of free-thinkers and intellectuals to work camps; a place where secret police kept the entire population living in fear.
In 1956, years of pent up tension among the Hungarian youth sparked an ill-fated revolution that once more turned Budapest into a battleground. Within months the uprising had been brutally suppressed, but in the confusion and political upheaval the country’s border guards relaxed their control and almost a quarter of a million people fled to the West.
One of these émigrés was a 20-year-old Grove, who – under threat of abduction or murder as a potential revolutionary – left his family and fled to Austria with his best friend. From there he would travel across Europe, eventually making his way across the Atlantic to the US.
Despite being out of money and possessing only limited English, Grove launched himself into a degree in chemical engineering at the City College of New York, supporting himself by working at a restaurant. After graduating he made his way to the West coast to study for his PhD at the University of California in Berkeley.
It was in California that Grove entered the industry that he would help shape, leaving academia to work as a researcher at Fairchild Semiconductor, where he became assistant director of development. In 1968 Grove, Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore left Fairchild to start up the company that would become Intel.
If it wasn’t for the fact it’s true, you would say the story of Grove’s life reads like a rags-to-riches cliché of the fable of the American Dream
His initial role at the company was as its director of engineering, and he put his talents to setting up early manufacturing operations in what would eventually be known as Silicon Valley. Among the engineers under his command, his passion for orderliness and cleanliness in the labs earned him the half-mocking, half-serious nickname “Mr Clean”.
And though he helped shape the technical side of Intel – and the industry as a whole – his biggest successes came when he turned his attention to the hard, business-minded aspects of the company.
While Moore and Noyce – the scientists who came up with the technology behind Intel – were busy driving a course into an unknown industry, Grove made certain that the route it took was solidly paved. He saw to it that important details weren’t left to chance, and applied some of the core tenets of chemical engineering to his company.
“I suppose that I approach strategy in a more concrete way than some other people might,” he told Industry Week, which had named him Technology Leader of the Year in 1997. “I think in terms of output, measurables, and flow.
“Flow is very important. How does one get a market established for a new product? How long before certain ingredients are needed?”
After 11 years working for Intel he was appointed the company’s president, and spent much of the 80s battling to keep Intel in front of Japanese competition. At one point, in a bid to match rivals’ new technology and low wages he ordered all his employees to work 25% overtime for free rather than lay people off.
The company survived, and as computers became more and more important to the world as a whole its scope grew and grew. By 1997 – three decades since Grove had joined Intel and ten years since he’d been made CEO – its revenue climbed from less than US$3,000 to almost US$21bn, and it controlled around 90% of the global microprocessor market.
Though his work as a scientist and engineer was highly respected, Grove’s greatest achievements at Intel came when he was working as a leader and manager.
Even strong supporters of Grove have admitted that his style of management was not for everybody. He was prickly, obsessive about detail and not afraid to raise his voice – though this last trait wasn’t helped by his partial deafness. He even developed a term for haranguing employees in full view of their colleagues, calling it “constructive confrontation.”
He led an endless series of productivity reviews for every single Intel employee, quantifying each aspect of production whether it be dollars earned or problems solved. Every management issue, he reasoned, could be broken down to a simple, objective series of inputs and outputs, and he worked to make those as efficient as possible. Part of his “management by paranoia” was to institute a blanket policy that instructed managers to fire the bottom 10% of their staff each time the annual reviews came around.
Despite this ruthlessness, those that could stomach his grouchy style – often those hired under Grove’s policy of targeting promising university graduates – voiced incredible respect for him.
He was also famed for a personal style that rejected most of the trappings of success in corporate America. For the entirety of his time in management at Intel his office was the same 8 ft by 9 ft felt-lined cubicle supplied to its rank-and-file employees. He said he preferred the egalitarian atmosphere that was under threat from mahogany desks and secretaries guarding the office door, so intentionally made his work area accessible to anyone who walked by.
“I’ve been living in cubicles since 1978 – and it hasn’t hurt a whole lot,” he declared in an Industry Week interview.
Every management issue, he reasoned, could be broken down to a simple, objective series of inputs and outputs, and he worked to make those as efficient as possible
Throughout his career, Grove worked single-mindedly to improve Intel’s products and technology, steering clear of the more philosophical issues that occasionally wrack booming industries. Speaking to Time journalist Walter Isaccson when Grove was named Man of the Year, he described feeling impatient with constant questions over the role of technology in society
“Technology happens,” he declared. “It’s not good, it’s not bad. Is steel good or bad?”
It’s very hard to argue with him on that point. Personal computers and the processors at their heart have shaped the last 60 or so years like nothing else, and that influence seems only set to grow. Whether you are reading this on a flickering screen or a piece of paper, you are only able to do so because of that work of countless thousands of microprocessors.
Grove’s colleague and Intel founder Gordon Moore became known for his ‘law’ that microchips double in power and halve in price every 18 months or so. Grove, however, created his own spin on the idea – “we will continually find new things for microchips to do that were scarcely imaginable two years earlier.”
Looking at the world today, it seems his rule still applies.
Originally published in September 2014