I Remember HP
In 1971 the “Valley” was still named for the county of Santa Clara, not for a physical particle. This area just south of San Francisco was filled with orchards -- apricot, peach, cherry, plum. Urban sprawl had started but had not yet taken over. Blossom Hill Road was appropriately named. Intel was a fledgling company -- the high tech boom was still years away.
It was a typical beautiful summer afternoon when I walked through the office door: a low-profile, new building on the edge of an orchard. “Hey Bill, Steve is looking for you.” A couple of steps further someone else said: “Vallender wants to see you and he doesn’t look happy!”
This was not good news. On his best days my boss Steve Vallender scared the living crap out of just about everyone. The guys in Marketing at the far end of the building were so frightened of him that they rarely visited us in Engineering where HP’s new computers were invented. When Steve was angry, which was pretty often, he would explode at anyone and everyone, even his bosses. He was intimidating, boisterous, pushy -- the antitheses of the typical geeky Hewlett Packard Engineering Manager.
When I entered his cubicle Steve’s face was more flushed than usual. Chewing furiously on that ever-present toothpick. Closely cropped, neatly combed black hair, slicked down with a touch of Brylcreem -- the same way he wore it a few years earlier in the Marines. He was scowling over engineering schedules for our new, secret, highly advanced computer system, code named Alpha. Bill Hewlett himself had recently told Steve’s boss Tom Perkins to kill Omega, the project everyone wanted to do. He wanted to force the computer freaks to work on Alpha. HP management wanted Alpha, the engineers wanted Omega.
Steve must have gotten a kick out of the fact that no one up the chain of command had the slightest idea what the difference was between the two products. HP was not a computer company -- its roots were in power supplies and oscilloscopes -- things you could touch and feel. Computers were dominated by some new thing called “software” -- something you couldn’t see, couldn’t touch, but was very expensive to produce and always late.
“Where were you?” Steve looked like he was about to bust a gut.
“I took a half day off.” I was surprised by the meekness of my own voice.
“I DON’T CARE. WHERE WERE YOU?” The toothpick was quickly shredded.
“I was playing golf.”
“WHAT’D YOU SHOOT?” Golf was Steve’s passion.
“What?” Did he really care about my score?
“I SAID: WHAT..... DID ...... YOU ...... SHOOT?!”
“I don’t know -- the usual -- 95 or 96 I think.”
Steve finally exploded. “BECAUSE OF YOU AND THAT IDIOT KID, I’VE GOT THE OLD MAN BREATHING FIRE DOWN MY NECK.... AND YOU COULDN’T EVEN BREAK 90!!! GET OUT OF HERE!”
As I slinked out of his office Steve’s voice was booming across the building: “HEWLETT!! JIM HEWLETT!! GET YOUR ASS IN HERE!”
It had only been a couple of months since we had hired Jim, right out of Harvard with a math degree. Well, not exactly hired. Late one Friday Steve had stormed into my cubicle. He was poking me in the chest. “Foster, starting Monday the Old Man’s son will be working here, and guess what: You’re the math guy so he’s WORKING FOR YOU! DON’T SCREW IT UP!!” Later I became a little proud of the fact two months had gone by before I screwed it up.....
Utopia for Geeks
I worked for Hewlett Packard in what is now known as Silicon Valley, from 1969 to 1976 -- what I think were the glory years of the company. When I left and moved east in ’76 HP was in great shape. Today, though it is a much larger, HP is certainly not a better company. Stockholders are not happy and employee morale is down -- the company most likely would no longer be mentioned in Tom Peter’s book “In Search of Excellence”. I have my own ideas about why HP changed for the worse. It’s important first to describe what HP was like in the good old days.
The Valley (Santa Clara or Silicon, your choice) was very different back then. Steady growth was happening, but the area was still dominated by orchards. However, they were being inexorably knocked down for housing developments, shopping malls, and industrial parks. It frequently bothered me to drive by a familiar orchard and see 40 acres of trees bulldozed over -- turning brown, rotting on the ground. There was never an attempt to save them -- rather than build around a few rescued trees it was easier to just knock them all down.
In 1969 I was three years out of San Jose State, working as a civilian mathematician on the Air Force’s rather new spy satellite program. My job was to help do the calculations and write the programs to figure out where to fire the retro-rockets in order for an airplane to recover a film capsule hanging under a parachute somewhere near Hawaii. A pretty cool job, but other than the Air Force, NASA, or the Russians, no one else needed my skills. That bothered me -- I wanted to be in greater demand.
My commute to Sunnyvale would take me by an inconspicuous building on the edge of an orchard. “Hewlett Packard” read the sign. I had heard of HP -- they had a great reputation. But I didn’t know what they did. “Packard” -- wasn’t that the name of an old fashioned automobile? I was pretty sure HP didn’t make cars. But how about television sets or movie projectors -- or was that Packard-Bell? There was only one way to find out. I simply drove into their parking lot one morning and asked the receptionist if I could speak with someone about a job.
As I waited in the building’s lobby I noticed that everyone walking by was young. They were a bunch of kids like me or even younger. In aerospace there were a lot of old farts -- some as old as 40! But at HP everyone seemed to be in their early 20’s.
I wasn’t sent through an interview gauntlet -- only one person met with me, a fellow named Mike Green. Mike was about my age (25), cock sure of himself, but for good reason -- he was an extremely smart and capable engineer. It turns out HP was developing a new minicomputer system and they needed some math software to go with it. HP sold to scientists and engineers, not businesses, hence the need for a math package.
I have to admit I wasn’t too impressed with the term “mini”. My work for the Air Force revolved around huge “mainframe” computers, made by a company called Control Data Corporation. CDC computers were among the biggest and fastest on the planet. Think of your average MacDonald’s restaurant. One CDC mainframe occupied that much space. And they had to be fast -- the satellite was going to circle the earth every 90 minutes, no matter what, and if the calculations weren’t done in time the bird would be lost forever.
So to me “mini” implied small, and small seemed uninteresting. But Mike offered me a job on the spot. I had just completed my MS in Math from The University of Santa Clara, and along with my Air Force work I was a perfect fit. There were plenty of jobs available in the Valley and I figured if I didn’t like mini’s I would just go somewhere else. So I accepted Mike’s offer.
Hewlett Packard was a thirty year old company when I joined in 1969. My timing was perfect -- they only recently decided to get into the booming computer business and I was starting on the ground floor. When HP was founded in 1939 computers didn’t yet exist -- their first product was something called an audio oscillator which they sold to Walt Disney to be used in producing the movie Fantasia. In 1969 no one predicted that in the future computers would dominate HP’s business.
They had two new computers under development, code named “Alpha” and “Omega”. When completed, Alpha was going to replace HP’s existing minicomputer line, the HP 2116. But Alpha was just Omega’s little sister, and Omega was going to knock the socks off the industry. Everything about Omega was new and state-of-the-art -- the iPad of the day. So naturally all of the engineers wanted to work on it -- nobody wanted to touch Alpha.
I worked in what was called the Cupertino Division, run by a fellow named Tom Perkins. Tom was pretty old -- pushing 40. A couple of the managers were early to mid-thirties. But all of the engineers were young like me. In fact, I was pretty unusual in that I already had three years work experience. The vast majority of engineers were “fresh outs”, hired straight out of schools like Stanford, Cal Berkeley, or MIT. A pretty cool collection of talent.
Our division felt like a small company. We had all the resources that we needed -- we never really had any cause to interact with “The Hill”, as corporate offices in Palo Alto were called. And while there were other HP divisions nearby, they were doing old-line things like microwave products and atomic clocks -- as far as we were concerned they weren’t even part of the same company. So we had the benefit and security of a large company, with the fun and adroitness of a high-tech startup. The best of both worlds.
Hewlett Packard prided itself on treating its employees well. We had profit sharing, which got me a motorcycle, flying lessons, our second car, Christmas presents... We had tuition reimbursement -- so I immediately started Santa Clara’s evening MBA program. We were encouraged to pick fruit from the orchard -- HP owned the land. Free long distance phone calls on the company WATS line -- and believe me, free long distance was a big deal back then. When the economy turned sour in 1971 and President Nixon instituted wage and price controls, rather than laying people off like everyone else in the Valley HP gave us a 10% pay cut and every other Friday off. This applied to everyone -- from Hewlett to the janitors. Nobody at HP lost their job.
And of course there were free coffee and doughnuts, and the occasional company beer-bust. Lore has it that starting on day one in 1939 Bill and Dave’s wives brought them coffee and donuts. It became a daily event, and the tradition continued 30 years later. Around 10 am carts full of the stuff would be wheeled in. It was the source of some conflict in the computer division. HP believed in “open landscaping” which meant few if any walls in the buildings. No individual offices. Very egalitarian. We in Engineering weren’t stuck to a time clock and hadn’t yet learned the “HP Way”, which included a level of decorum and politeness. We would mosey over and quickly pick out the best jellies and chocolates. The poor pogues in Manufacturing could only watch and fume, waiting for the chime that signaled their coffee break, hoping that something more than plain donuts would be left. Another reason to hate the hippie-freak engineers.
I could never quite figure out how a company of HP’s size got away with beer-busts. Every now and then, on an unscheduled basis, we would be surprised to learn that the next afternoon there would be a big party. The entire division was invited -- Marketing, Engineering, and Manufacturing. Beer, hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza -- the whole works. Since this was sunny California beer busts were always held outside -- a big picnic in paradise. I never heard of anyone getting killed on the way home from too much drink, but providing beer at work was certainly not the norm for companies in the area. Nobody else would take the risk. Nobody except for Tandem Computers, that is. When Tandem spun out of HP in 1974 they decided to one-up their old employer and hold beer-busts not just two or three times a year, but EVERY Friday.
If there ever was a company that always seemed to do the right thing, it was HP back in the 70’s. We had a term called “The HP Way.” There was no written definition — it was something you felt. When something good happened it was part of The HP Way. When you had the inclination to do something “bad” — cut corners on a project, treat a customer badly, turn in an inflated expense account, fire a really bad employee — these things didn’t happen. They were not The HP Way. It’s like we walked around with little halos over our heads. Of course, if this was the only place you worked you assumed all companies were like HP. You had to leave Hewlett Packard to become a part of the real world.
At these parties you could look over the crowd and sort people out. It was obvious that dress and groom were quickly headed south, particularly for the engineers. The marketing folks had to get in front of customers, so they were relatively clean cut -- for the early 70’s. Some occasionally wore jackets and ties! And the manufacturing guys were mostly right-wing lunch pail working stiffs, pretty much anti-hippie. They kept their hair short, their shirts tucked in. But the engineers were mostly out of control, particularly the programmers.
Styles and hair length changed rapidly between 1969 and the early ’70’s, and not for the better. My hair covered my ears but was not shoulder-length like most of my peers. I wore shoes, many wore sandals. In fact, I was so relatively clean-cut that once I was accused by a potential customer of being from the marketing department, when they had insisted on speaking only to engineers.
It was pretty easy to spot the two types of engineers -- the kids that designed our products. The hardware guys (and 100% of the engineers were male) were reasonably well dressed, their beards were somewhat trimmed. They looked halfway responsible and mature. In contrast, the programmers looked like they should be hanging out on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley: disheveled, long and greasy hair, shirts only partially tucked in -- like they had just gotten out of bed. Hippie-freaks.
There were other differences: many of the hardware guys were married and had families. They had outside responsibilities. The software freaks were mostly bachelors. Their primary love was the computer and the programs they wrote. One of our guys was rather short in stature, with very long straight hair that seemed to reach the ground although it was really just below his waist. One day I was talking to Jerry in his office. As he got up to leave a piece of paper dropped to the ground. It was last week’s paycheck! As Jerry stuffed it in his desk drawer I couldn’t help but notice he had a pile of un-cashed checks in there! Unlike me, married with three kids and a mortgage, always making a bee line to the bank the minute I got my check, many of the software guys had little use for money -- the computer was their life.
We programmers were much of the reason the rest of HP didn’t trust the computer division. Before we came along all engineers at HP were hardware. Management up the line had a hardware background, including “Bill and Dave”. Most managers could look at a circuit board and have an idea what was going on. But they had no clue how to evaluate a software program, and they didn’t like the way programmers looked -- they didn’t trust us.
Out of necessity hardware has constraints and boundaries. It has to fit on a certain size board. The number and types of circuits and chips are limited. There are cost constraints, as well as limits on power and heat. Software, by contrast, has few boundaries. Give ten programmers the same problem and they will solve it in ten different ways. As long as the program works, who cares how it is coded? Programmers are very sensitive and consider their code to be works of art. They think of themselves as artists, like Picasso or van Gogh. Actually, Picasso is a bad choice because he was attracted to women and most programmers hardly knew they existed. Van Gogh is a much better comparison, because if you criticized his code a programmer could go crazy and cut off his own ear -- or yours! Programmers hate to have anyone look at their code -- they don’t deal well with criticism.
Part of the reason our division was named “Cupertino” rather than “Computer” was because of these software characters that Hewlett and the boys just couldn't quite figure out. They weren’t ready to accept us as part of HP proper. When after a few years our name was finally changed to the Data Systems Division it signaled the start of HP’s acceptance of the hippie-freaks.
Even though I was relatively clean cut compared to the other engineers my wardrobe was pretty hideous. In the fall of 1970 I took a rare business trip to Washington DC. Some kind of FORTRAN conference that Vallender insisted I go to. This was pretty cool because it was my first trip east of Lake Tahoe! As I walked up the isle from the back of the plane after we landed none other than Dave Packard appeared from first class, conservatively dressed in a crisp business suit. (He was Deputy Defense Secretary from 1969 thru ‘71 and was frequently in Washington.) I couldn’t resist -- I had visions of moving up the corporate ladder.
“Mr. Packard, I would like to introduce myself. I’m Bill Foster and I work for your company.” I stuck out my hand — Packard froze. He slowly eyeballed me from head to toe. I am no shorty, standing 6 foot 3, but Packard seemed to tower over me. He stood motionless for just a few seconds but it seemed like an hour, dissecting me like a CAT scanner. I was wearing the usual: hideous madras shirt, double-knit too tight stretched blue bell-bottoms, very wide white leather belt, and cowboy boots. His thoughts were as clear as a cartoon balloon popping out of his brain: “I can’t believe we let a freak like this work for us!” Finally he politely but quickly shook my hand, mumbled something about being late for a meeting -- and he was gone. My first encounter with the Big Man and it had gone poorly. I didn’t know it then but in a few years I would have another private encounter with Packard under much more trying circumstances.
The one person who never changed was my boss Steve Vallender. Steve was mid-thirties, a chain smoker, with that ubiquitous toothpick. He always wore a white shirt, sleeves rolled up two turns. Exactly two turns. Slight pot belly. Black slacks, polished shoes. He was not going to succumb to the rapidly deteriorating fashions of the time. Steve had grown up in The Bronx and still had a heavy New York accent, which really stood out among us laid-back Valley freaks. And Steve was volatile, high strung, always on the verge of exploding. Picture Rodney Dangerfield without a sense of humor. In fact, think of a perennially pissed-off Rodney Dangerfield, and you begin to get an image of Steve. Jumpy, twitchy, eyes slightly bulging.
I was constantly amazed by Steve’s proclivity to yell at his bosses, and being able to get away with it. I was in his office once when Steve heard of some “dumb” move by Corporate on The Hill. Steve picked up the phone and started yelling at his boss Dick Hackborn. He screamed at Dick, telling him he was and idiot for letting Corporate get away with whatever the infraction was. Hackborn just took it like he had many times in the past -- he wasn’t going to confront Steve, even though Hackborn was considered a superstar. (Years later he became a member of HP's Board.)
On another occasion he dragged me into Paul Ely’s office and proceeded to chew him out over some decision regarding Alpha. I don’t know why Steve brought me along -- I think he was just trying to show me that he didn’t bow down to anyone. I sure wasn’t going to confront Paul or be of any help to Steve. Are you kidding? Paul Ely was the new Wonder Boy division manager sent down by Hewlett to straighten up Cupertino. Paul had a great track record, was tough, confrontational, didn’t care about friends or enemies, only results. Ely at least yelled back at Steve, where his other bosses just took it.
I got to know Steve much better in the ’80’s several years after we had both left HP. As is frequently the case, his bark was much greater than his bite once you got outside work. In fact, Steve and I became really good friends and he was a big help to me in getting my own computer company started. But he never lost his volatility, which may have contributed to him dying much too young from a heart attack.
Cupertino changed division managers as often as many people change their underwear. It seemed like we were always late with every new product, and always over budget. So Hewlett would send down another guy that he trusted -- from Microwave, Test, or some other old-line division. The problem was none of these guys knew computers, particularly software. And software is always the thing that screws up computer projects. Software is misnamed -- it should be called “hardware” because it is harder to do than hardware -- if that makes any sense.
The heart of a computer is something called the Operating System. Think of Windows or IOS or Android. The OS is millions of times more complex than the hardware that it runs on, and about a million times more likely to fail. (Yes, this is a somewhat ironic statement coming from a guy who years later started a company with a product that could tolerate hardware faults but not software... ) But the microwave guys just didn’t understand how to manage software. They COULDN’T get it -- they just didn’t have the background. So one division manager after the next would be fooled or snowed by the programmers, thinking the project was in good shape, and then disaster would strike.
Paul Ely was the last of a bunch of division managers during my time at HP. And no question he was the best. I call him the Wonder Boy because he was relatively young and had done great things at Microwave. But Paul was not a very likable guy. In fact, he was impossible to like. He didn’t care how people felt -- he only cared about being successful. He once told me that he wasn’t trying to win any popularity contests -- and he succeeded greatly at that. While Paul could be a royal pain in the ass I do give him credit for saving HP’s computer business. The Alpha project eventually morphed into a computer called the HP 3000. It initially flopped in the marketplace and became a total embarrassment to the company. Hewlett was ready to can the entire program. HP had a reputation to maintain, and part of that reputation was that their products were a cut above everyone else’s. But Paul held his ground with Hewlett -- he told him that the 3000 was basically a very good product, it just needed more time to work out the kinks. Paul saved the 3000 and kept HP in the computer business.
About twice a year we would have off-site management meetings at a place near Santa Cruz called Pajaro Dunes. We would rent some houses, cook for ourselves, do some planning. I started the practice years later at my own company -- one of our guys called these events “corporate do-da’s” -- part boon-doggle, part useful. “Bonding”, I guess, is the politically correct term. At Paul’s first meeting he worked longer and harder, was pushy and overly assertive, did most of the cooking, and the first night he out-drank everyone by a long shot. And he was the first one up the next morning, ready to roll. We all gained a little more respect for Paul after that.
However, he never lost his gift for words. When I quit HP in 1976 to join their arch-enemy Data General (back then no senior manager ever left HP for a direct competitor) he chewed me out for a while and when I mentioned that my brother worked for HP as a salesman and I hoped Paul wouldn’t hold my actions against him, he came out with a real classic: “Don’t worry Foster -- I don’t think your problems are genetic!” Still cracks me up almost 40 years later.
There was one other person besides Vallender who wasn’t afraid of Paul. Mike Green, the guy that hired me. Mike was one of the coolest people in Cupertino, and probably the smartest. A real laid-back hippie-freak: long hair, sandals, slow walking, supremely confident. After a couple of years Mike and I flipped jobs and I became his boss. He decided it was more fun to invent than to manage. When the 3000 got into trouble I asked Mike to drop what he was doing and take charge of MPE, the operating system. MPE was the most complex part of the computer and it was a disaster. Because of MPE customers began shipping their 3000’s BACK to HP -- that was definitely the wrong direction.
Mike agreed to save MPE, and after a week or two we were ready to present his plan to Ely. Mike stood up in a room full of important people and gave the pitch. It was a great plan, and Mike said we would be out of the woods in about five months. When he finished his presentation Ely said “are you telling me five months because that’s what I want to hear, or is this really what you think will happen?” Mike looked at Paul in a dismissive manner. “I’m saying this because it’s going to happen. Why would I say anything just to please you?” For once Ely was speechless. He had no retort. He had met his match. There was dead silence as we left the room. And five months later MPE was working.
Bill Hewlett was surprisingly visible in Cupertino. He came by at least once a year for our Division Review -- a dog-and-pony show where we would show off our latest products. Bill would usually bring along his buddies Ralph Lee and Barney Oliver. No one really knew what Ralph did -- he was one of Bill’s old cronies. I knew he was a pilot because flying was my passion and I was jealous that he flew a Cessna Skymaster -- referred to as a “Mixmaster” in the aviation community. It had a propeller in back as well as one in front and looked more like a kitchen gadget than an airplane. But it actually saw a lot of service in Vietnam for forward air patrol....
Apparently Ralph was involved with company finance because whenever we put up an overhead slide with dollar signs he would whip out the newest model HP hand-held calculator and pound its little keys at a furious rate. Then he would frown. But he never said anything -- so we didn’t know if it was a good frown or bad one. The other clear sign that he was a numbers guy happened when we put up a new building. (Yes, HP knocked down all the fruit trees just like everyone else.) There was a huge, ugly pile of dirt left behind from the excavation. It sat right outside our windows for about a year as Ralph waited for the market price of dirt to rise. We called the pile Mt. Lee.
Barney Oliver was another old-line HP guy, having joined in the early ’50’s. Bill and Dave trusted Barney -- they spoke the same language. But Barney didn’t really fit the HP conservative mold. He was a fun-loving extrovert. There were stories that Barney would be seen driving through Palo Alto in his drop-top Cadillac with two or three cute ladies in the car. But I never personally observed this...
Barney ran HP Labs, the corporate Think Tank. He managed a bunch of engineers and could do pretty much whatever he wanted -- no schedules, few budget constraints, an engineering utopia. Every now and then the Labs would come out with something that was actually useful -- like the HP-35, the world’s first truly powerful pocket calculator, a product that basically killed the slide rule.
Barney was also Bill’s fixer. If a division had a problem with a power supply or packaging or such-like, Hewlett would call on Barney to fix it. When the HP 3000 fell on its derriere Bill called on Barney. It took about 2 nanoseconds for the fun-loving guy to realize trying fixing the 3000 would be a total pain -- in fact, it was impossible for his hardware guys to help. The problem was with the operating system, and Barney and his boys had no idea how that stuff worked. Let the hippie-freaks get their own selves out of that mess.
Hewlett put in a lot of effort to mingle with the troops. The division reviews always involved a dinner in the evening and Bill would eat with the janitors and then hang around for a poker game. Bill would come to all of the company picnics, held at HP’s ranch in the Santa Cruz mountains called Little Basin. There were 10 or so divisions around the Valley, each with their own picnic. Making all of them was a big commitment on Bill’s part -- I give him a lot of credit. With my own company years later I found it to be a total drag to make all of our picnics each summer, and we only had three!
Of course, being a rather obnoxious, ladder-climbing, status conscious young punk I could never pass up the opportunity to horn in. If there was ever any space at his picnic table I would be sure to grab my wife Marian and the kids, hustle over and schmooze with the Old Man, somehow thinking this was going to help my career.
Hewlett came up to me at a division review sometime after the golfing debacle. The 3000 was behind schedule but we had a prototype and Bill wanted a demo. He gave me a math problem and I quickly wrote a Basic program to solve it. Meanwhile he pulled out a well-worn HP-35 calculator, pushed a couple of buttons, and got the answer, faster and with a more accurate result. “Foster, tell me why my $400 hand-held did a better job than your hundred thousand dollar computer?” I mumbled something about the limits of 16-bits and that I should have used double precision floating point. He was not convinced -- another reason not to trust us.
And then he said, “Foster, aren’t you the guy that was playing golf with Jim? Explain that to me -- tell me why, in the middle of the work week, you and Jim would be out playing golf.” I was mortified. I didn’t know that he knew it was me! So, all I could do was tell the story….
A few times a month during the long summer days I would leave home early, drive to a local golf course, and sneak in a quick 9 holes. Tee off by 6am, in to work at 8:30, no sweat. At some point The Kid learned about my early morning escapades. Turns out he fit in to our group pretty smoothly, and we quickly forgot that he was the Old Man’s son. Jim asked if he could come along and play the next time I went out. Some type of a warning flag popped up deep in my brain, but I ignored it and said ok.
Turns out Jim was probably the world’s slowest golfer. He was in to nature -- looking at the birds, the trees, the frogs in the pond -- the most easily distracted golfer I have ever met. It quickly became clear that we would have no hope of getting to work on time, so I decided we should just play 18 holes, stop by my house for lunch, and log it as a half day of vacation. No big deal.
What I didn’t know was that Jim didn’t actually own any golf clubs. He had driven from his apartment to the Old Man’s house at 5am, rummaged through the garage looking for Bill's sticks, and was casually walking down the driveway with the golf bag over his shoulder when Hewlett looked out the bedroom window. He was thinking, “what’s The Kid doing with my golf clubs, middle of the week, when I know that stupid computer Alpha or whatever it’s called is behind schedule?” First thing that morning he started calling down the line and eventually got to Vallender, and the rest is history. He chewed Steve out from top to bottom and there was no way my boss was going to talk back — for once in his life he just took it. When I finished telling the story Hewlett actually laughed. That made me feel a little better, but not much. The 3000 was very late, and it was impossible to truly relax.
Packard was much less visible around HP. Partly because he was off at the Defense Department but mostly because it just wasn’t his nature to pal around. Packard was the business man, Hewlett was the engineer. It was a great combination and worked well for over 40 years. It’s very unusual to have 2 guys at the top and have it work out well. You might think of Jobs and Wozniak, but they were only together for a few years and Jobs really dominated that pairing. But the chemistry between Bill and Dave was pretty amazing.
Now and then Packard would come down to Cupertino and speak at some event. After listening to him a few times I developed what I called Packard’s Three Commandments.
I. Manage the right hand column
It took me a while, but I finally figured out what this meant. The internal HP financial statements showed assets on the extreme right of the page: cash, receivables, inventory, etc. What Packard meant was: manage HP’s assets carefully. He gave this talk soon after Hewlett was about to sign off on a $40 million debt package to finance a computer leasing program so that we could compete directly against IBM. Packard came back from Defense and said no way, we never have had debt and never will. If we can’t pay for it ain't doing it.
II. As we grow we must continue to decentralize
Packard believed strongly that as a successful company grew it must continually be divided into smaller, manageable pieces. He did not believe in large organizations with much of the control centered at the top. He far preferred to measure the results of 20 smaller companies than one huge one. I felt the effects of this strategy -- Cupertino to me seemed like a small company, but we benefited by the largeness of all of HP.
By the time I left we had divided Cupertino into several divisions, each run by a team whose results could be easily measured. Years later with my own company I tried to divisionalize and create the feel of separate companies -- I discovered it was not an easy thing to do.
III. Make a Technical Contribution
This point really hit home with me when I started my own company. I heard Packard state this commandment as hand-held calculators sales were ramping up and that division started facing new challenges. Texas Instruments decided to go after the HP-35. TI would sell their inferior products for almost nothing in order to get into the market. The Calculator Division looked for a response and considered drastically cutting prices. Packard said no — that would not work. HP hasn’t been and will never be a low-ball competitor. If a product is going to survive at HP it will be due to superior technology, not low cost. Kind of like Apple with the iPhone decades later.
In that speech I can still hear Packard very forcefully saying “I never EVER want to hear that we are doing something just to gain market share!” Six years later when I was working on plans for my own computer company, Packard’s Technical Contribution commandment played a huge part in my ultimate success. I wasn't going to just improve on Tandem’s design — I needed to come up with a real contribution.
Omega is dead. Long live Omega
About a year before I joined HP Mike Green and the computer freaks had started work on a new computer, code named Omega. Actually, they weren’t quite freaks yet -- in 1968 people were still pretty much clean cut. The drastic changes started a year or so later.
There was a show on the History Channel about “The summer of love”. San Francisco during 1967. It was narrated by an actor named Peter Coyote -- about my age. If you believed him, all people of my generation that summer had tuned out, were doped up, and were only interested only in freeloading and free love. This is an example of why you can’t trust the media. We lived about 60 miles south of the craziness of Haight-Ashbury and Golden Gate Park. None of my friends or co-workers were in to any of that stuff. I interacted with about 100 people and 100% of them were like me: working stiffs in their early 20’s trying to make a living and to get ahead in life. But if you believed Coyote, everyone in my generation was constantly stoned like the freaks in Frisco. In reality, throughout most of the 60’s most young people were relatively clean cut and responsible. It wasn’t until very late in the decade and into the early 70’s hair and dress went crazy.
Omega had a lot of really cool technical features -- at least if you were a propeller-head. Virtual memory, stack architecture, separation of code and data... But the most significant thing was it was to be a 32 bit computer. All minicomputers at that time were 16 bits or less, meaning that the basic unit of data within the computer was 16 one’s and zeros. So, what’s the big deal about going from 16 to 32? There are a couple of obvious things, including the precision of numerical calculations, which improve dramatically. But the main thing -- the overwhelming advantage, is that a 32 bit computer can much more easily operate on very large programs and huge amounts of data. The address space is sixty five thousand times greater with a 32 bit computer. That is a really big deal -- software coders would no longer have to waste time trying to make their programs fit. Much larger amounts of data could be easily accessed. In other words, going to 32 bits in the late 60’s would have been a game changer in the mini business -- HP would have set themselves apart from DEC and everyone, by a long shot.
As a programmer in the 60’s much of your time was spent fighting limited address space. It is a lost art to be able to write a small, efficient program. Today’s 64 bit notebooks and tablets can access more than 250 BILLION times the memory that you could with a 16 bit computer. Back in 1969 no one was thinking of 64 bit computers -- memory was too limited and expensive back then. But everyone kept bumping into the limits of 16 bit computers, particularly as more sophisticated applications were developed.
Along with the Omega hardware the software guys were working on a new, highly sophisticated operating system -- called MPE for Multi Programming Executive. It was to combine the three types of computing on to one system: batch, timesharing, and real time. Batch was the old way of accessing computers. The user never actually touched a computer -- she would punch out the program or application on a deck of cards, drop it in a cubbyhole in the computer center, and then come back the next day to get the results --which were stuffed in that same cubbyhole. Oftentimes a trivial mistake on the first punched card killed the entire job and it would have to be resubmitted, at the loss of an entire day.
Real time was the connection of the computer to some type of device -- for example test equipment for things like aircraft engines. This required a small, highly efficient operating system that could respond quickly to inputs from the test equipment. Why the programmers ever thought that MPE or Omega could be used for this type of an application is a mystery to me -- Omega would be much too expensive and MPE would be way too slow.
Timesharing was a relatively new concept. It had to do with multiple “dumb” CRT terminals connected to the same computer. This was the first chance for users to directly interact with the computer. HP was fairly successful in developing a timesharing system used in the university environment, where students could learn how to develop software by writing and then executing simple programs. The idea was that for these types of applications where there is not a lot of number crunching the computer’s CPU, aka brain, was idle most of the time, waiting on the human at the dumb terminal. So the computer’s time could be “shared” among several users, greatly reducing the cost per user.
Needless to say, in order for MPE to handle all three tasks it would be very big and complex. By far the most complex piece of technology in the system. But this was ok because Omega was 32 bits, and that provided plenty of room for MPE to run. Or least that's what the hippie-freaks thought.
At the same time that Omega was being developed there were plans for its little sister, code named Alpha. This computer was going to be similar to Omega in terms of its advanced architectural features, but Alpha would only be 16 bits so that it could replace the very low end of HP’s computer line. But with the limited address space of 16 bits, it wasn’t really a fun project to be working on. The limits of a 16 bit machine kept getting in the way. So, naturally, all the hardware and software engineers spent all of their time on Omega -- Alpha only existed on a piece of paper.
In 1971 the US economy turned sour, and with it the sales of HP computers. Management was concerned. HP was not meeting their sales goals for the 2116, which was getting pretty long in the tooth. I was a lowly software manager at the time and did not participate in the various meetings between The Hill and Cupertino. But it was clear to the higher ups that the 2116 family needed to be replaced, that the hippie-freaks were spending all of their time on Omega, and that Alpha was being ignored. So Perkins and the boys ordered Omega to be cancelled. They figured that was the only way to get the engineers to work on Alpha. This was a bad move and really freaked out the freaks, especially the software guys, who now had to cram things onto a 16 bit computer. For several weeks we all wore black arm bands in protest. Everyone except Vallender -- the band would have clashed with his white shirt. Even Jim Hewlett wore an arm band.
Work quickly started on the Alpha hardware. But the software guys were emotionally attached to MPE. So, the worst of all things happened. The hippie-freaks decided to keep working on MPE, but force it to fit on Alpha. That was never going to work, but when the plans were presented to Perkins and others in management they went along because they had no clue -- they were not computer people and didn’t understand the extreme risk of trying to cram MPE onto a 16 bit computer.
Work progressed on Alpha, and sometime in 1971 it was given an official name: the HP 3000. I have no idea where the number 3000 came from. Maybe it was the largest multiple of one thousand that was greater than 2116??? The hardware was in pretty good shape, and the software seemed to be making progress. “Seemed” is the operative word, because it is very hard to measure the progress of software as it is being developed. Unlike hardware, there is nothing physical to see in terms of software progress. You have to pretty much trust what the programmer is telling you. Bad idea.
Around this time Mike Green and I switched jobs, and now I was managing the Programming Languages group. We were working on things called compilers, such as Fortran, Basic, Cobol, and an Algol-type language of our own invention, SPL. This high level language would be used by our programmers to develop MPE and the other stuff that we did-- a very advanced concept for the time.
Visual Basic, C ++ and Java are examples of the languages of today, and they essentially provide the same function. Cobol was somewhat controversial for us because it was the language of the commercial world, and up until now HP was selling strictly to engineers and scientists. There was no reason why the 3000 couldn’t do well as a commercial machine, but the thought scared upper management because it meant possibly bumping heads with IBM. Virtually everyone in the mainframe business had failed going up against IBM. Powerhouses like RCA, GE, Honeywell, and Xerox tried, and all failed after spending millions of dollars. IBM was just too tough and strong, and they had outstanding marketing. No corporate executive ever lost his job buying an IBM computer -- it was the safe way to go.
But at that time IBM was still totally focused on the “mainframe” market -- huge computers costing millions of dollars. HP was in the minicomputer market where computers sold for much less money, and it was felt this difference would provide a safety net against IBM.
As work progressed everyone was optimistic that the 3000 would be shipping by the summer of 1972, so in the fall of 1971 it was announced at an industry trade show. The HP sales force began extensive training on this complex product, and they began investing their time selling it. On paper the HP 3000 looked fantastic!
The 3000 Flop
While my group was focused on programming languages my cubicle-mate, Ron Matsumoto was in charge of MPE, the monster operating system. While you might be able to ship the computer without a language like COBOL, it was totally useless without MPE. And MPE was in trouble, big time.
As 1971 came to an end I could tell Ron was stressed out, but he wasn’t the kind of person to really open up with his problems. When he started placing a bottle of Pepto Bismol on his desk each morning it was pretty clear we were in trouble. Ron starting swilling that stuff like it was Pepsi, not Pepto.
It turns out that even as a brain-dead manager I did make one significant technical contribution to the 3000. Jim Katzman, who eventually helped start Tandem but at this time was in charge of the 3000 hardware, asked me if I would do the floating point microcode. Sure!!! It would be fun! I had no idea what I was doing.
A micro-instruction on the 3000 was something like 48 bits long. One instruction was extremely complex, with six or seven fields, very unfriendly. You were really down at the bit level — everything was done with numerical codes. I had know idea how floating point arithmetic worked — how it was done. There is a series of books written by the famous Stanford professorDonald Knuth entitled “Semi-numerical Algorithms.” I think it was Volume 2 that spelled out how to do floating point. Add/subtract was easy, multiplication was a little harder. Basically multiplication is just a bunch of additions.
Divide was the killer. Very tricky. A lot of bit shifting and tweaking. Back then there were no simulators, no hardware to check your work. You developed this stuff by sitting at your desk, using a coding pad, going through instructions step by step as if your were really an extremely slow computer. To be a good desk coder you have to be able to work in very simple steps — be very precise, constantly thinking of what can go wrong.
When it was finally done I sat down with Katzman at the one and only prototype 3000 and we tested all the various operations. It all worked!! First time out!!! No bugs!! The only thing I screwed up was not accounting for the divide by zero fault — an obvious case. Other than that there were no bugs. Even Katzman was impressed. This was the second to the last creative thing I ever did on a computer. That last was a Motorola 68000 simulator that I did at Stratus. But that’s another story….
My guys rarely had a chance to actually get their hands on a machine, but when they did, word got quickly back that it was extremely slow. The HP 3000 was being sold as a 64 terminal system -- meaning that 64 people at a time could use it. But just one of our programmers could bring the system to its knees. It was clear there was a big time performance problem.
Worked proceeded at a feverish pace during the beginning of 1972. It was clear that the summer ship date would not be met, so a line was drawn in the sand for November of that year -- the 3000 would ship then come hell or high water. We put up posters all over engineering that declared "November Is A Happening!" When that month finally came around it was clear to those of us in the lab that the machine just was not ready. Why did we ship? I don't know. Steve Vallender was under tremendous pressure. The 3000 was the an extremely expensive undertaking -- he was under a lot of pressure to get it out the door. So, we shipped serial #1 to the Lawrence Hall of Science in nearby Berkeley. A couple of weeks later they shipped it back. The 3000 could support at most 2 or 3 users on a good day -- nowhere near 16 or 32 or whatever they were promised. And MPE was crashing 3 or 4 times a day.
For another accounting of the 3000 click here to read Bob Green's History of the HP 3000.
A few months and a couple of machines later HP punted and withdrew the 3000 from the marketplace. They gave free 2116 computers to the customers in hopes of appeasement — The HP Way. Bill and Dave were fuming -- this had been by far the most expensive project in the company’s history, and Hewlett Packard was being inundated with bad press — something that had never happened in the entire history of the company. In fairly quick succession Paul Ely came down to save things and a few months later my boss Steve Vallender left. I don’t think Steve was fired — HP never fired anyone back then, they just promoted them into oblivion. But Steve was somewhat un-promotable — he lacked a college degree and HP was pretty snobbish about that. Steve told me he was tired of high tech, wanted to live in Vegas and sell real estate. (Vegas? Really??) Steve did actually live there for a while, but eventually moved to San Diego and ran NCR’s computer development program before spinning out to launch his own company.
Dick Hackborn asked me if I wanted Steve's old job. Are you kidding??? Sure!! Hurt me!! I was looking to move up the ladder -- this was a fantastic break. My guess was they chose me over my hardware counterpart because management finally figured it was better to put a software guy in charge of computer projects. No matter -- here I was, not even 30 years old, running all the hardware and software development for HP's computer business.
My first and most important job was to come up with a plan for the hockey pucks. For some reason a year earlier Dick Hackborn had hired a couple of smooth-talking marketing bozos out of IBM. Hackborn created a group called Product Marketing within his Engineering group to compete with the real Marketing group at the other end of the building. This was very out of character for HP -- to hire senior people from the outside. One of their first actions was to give mementos of a project to the engineers who had developed it -- something tangible to remember their efforts. Apparently this was done all the time at IBM. They came up with the idea of a brass paperweight about the size of a hockey puck, but about half the thickness. Stamped on each one were three overlapping circles signifying batch, realtime, and timesharing -- things that the 3000 was supposed to do. And each individual’s name was engraved on the back. These were supposed to be handed out months earlier but with all the problems Vallender had hidden them away in a file cabinet. My first command move was to sneak in one weekend, lug them out to my car, and take them home to my garage. The last thing I wanted was for anyone to get wind of them.
The next step was to try to get some kind of usefulness out of the 3000 machine, and that meant fixing MPE. Enter Mike Green. By this time Ron “Pepto” Matusmato figured he had had enough and left the computer industry to start a landscaping business. A very good move on Ron’s part. He had a beautiful home in south San Jose with an amazing yard. Oftentimes when Ron was working in his yard a passerby would ask him for his card -- folks thought he was the Japanese gardner! That gave Ron an idea and he opened up what became a very successful landscaping business. It was kind of odd though -- every now and then Ron would get into a discussion with a customer and he would start talking computer speak — at a very high level. The customer is thinking -- how does my gardner know about a thousand times more about computers than I do?
In the middle of this tumultuous time in I was sitting at my desk fat, dumb, and happy, and the phone rings. “Bill, this is Jim Treybig. Remember me?” Of course I knew Jim. He had been a member of HP’s Marketing department -- the ones who were afraid to come down to Engineering. Jim had left HP several months earlier to join Kleiner Perkins, a venture capital firm co-founded by my old division manager Tom Perkins. I didn’t know anything about venture capital and little about Kleiner Perkins. I had heard they had made an investment in a company whose contraption converted a motorcycle into a snowmobile. You can guess where that went.
“What’s up, Jim?”
“Tom and I would like to meet with you for lunch to discuss an opportunity.”
I was curious. This was totally out of the blue. But I figured, why not? Never hurts to listen... Jim wanted to pick a place where no one from HP would see us, and he came up with some obscure dive near De Anza College, frequented mostly by hippie-students. I had only met personally with Tom Perkins a couple of times when he was at HP -- I was too low on the totem pole to run in his circles. I was impressed that he would have any interest in meeting with me.
Treybig got right to the point. “A couple of engineers from the telecommunications industry have given us a proposal for a fault-tolerant computer -- they want to start a computer company.” I had heard a little about “fault tolerance” but didn’t know much. The idea was to design a computer that was many times more reliable than conventional ones. Up to this point computers were notoriously unreliable. They would “crash” with abandon. As a software engineer you were taught to write small programs that executed fairly quickly, because there was a great chance the computer would crash before a long program finished.
Reliability was starting to become a big deal in the early 70’s. Computers were now becoming more visible to the end-user. ATM’s are a good example. These devices were just starting to come in to existence in the 70’s -- the banks loved them because they took the load off expensive local branches, and customers loved them because they didn’t have to go to the bank for routine transactions. But if the Bank of America had several hundred ATM’s hooked up to a central computer and that computer fails, all the ATM’s are down and the customers are not happy. In the old days of batch processing no one really knew if the computer failed -- it was hidden in the back office. But in the rapidly evolving on-line world computer reliability was starting to become a big issue.
These two engineers came out of telecom. That is an industry that pioneered reliability. The telephone industry (back then there was only one U.S. phone company, affectionately known as “Ma Bell”) was paranoid about availability, even to the extent of having their own power generators rather than rely on the local utility. No matter how bad the storm was or how long your power was out, when you picked up the telephone you always got a dial tone. This didn’t happen by accident -- Ma Bell had been investing in redundancy for decades.
Tom said “ever since I left HP I wanted to start a computer company. I figured I could do at least as good as HP. Now I have an opportunity.” Jim and Tom asked if I would like to get involved and look at their design. I was going to look at the software and overall architecture, and an x-HP hardware engineer named Fred Coury was going to look at the hardware. I knew Fred and he was a really good guy. I told them sure, why not? Doesn’t hurt to listen.
However, deep inside I was highly skeptical. “Normal” people like me and Treybig just didn’t start companies. You had to be able to walk on water like “Bill and Dave”. Or at least that’s what I thought. Also, I was just 30 years old, a family guy with three small kids, and a rising star at HP -- at least in my own mind. I had visions of one day being a VP! But still, it was pretty harmless to spend a little time looking at this idea.
The next week I took a half day vacation and showed up at Kleiner Perkins office on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park -- now the most famous venture capital address in the world. Fred Coury was also there, along with Jim and the two would-be entrepreneurs. I got to meet the famous Gene Kleiner -- he was one of the founders of Fairchild Semiconductor, the grandaddy of Silicon Valley semiconductor companies.
For a couple of hours we listened to these two guys pitch their plan. Most people didn’t know that the heart of a telephone call was really a computer. The switching and routing of calls had been preformed for years by computers running in "tandem", so that if one failed the phone call wasn’t dropped. Their idea was to take this type of redundancy and apply it to commercial computing. Make a computer system that was several orders of magnitude more reliable than those that were currently on the market. The plan was really fairly straightforward -- hook a couple of conventional computers together via a very high speed cable -- called a “bus” in computer-speak. A program running on one computer would periodically tell the other what is was doing -- they called it “checkpointing.” If computer A failed computer B would take over. The same thing would happen in the reverse direction -- computer B would checkpoint its data over to A now and then.
It sounds so simple you might ask why the existing computer companies weren’t doing this. Two reasons: they hadn’t thought of it, and they were always concerned about something called “backwards compatibility”. This term refers to companies being paranoid about the possibility of losing old customers. So, whenever a new computer came out it not only had to do its new stuff well -- which primarily meant run faster. But it also had to run every program that the existing customers had written for the older model computers. If the new computer didn’t run the old stuff then the customers might go to a competitor’s computer. That terrified computer companies -- losing old customers. The computer industry was famous for trying to lock in customers to their design -- so no matter how disappointed a customer was he could never switch to someone else -- it meant re-writing all that software -- it was just too expensive.
Even if HP or IBM or Burroughs or GE or any of them had thought of the redundancy idea, they would have rejected it because in order to take advantage of the design all the old software would have to be re-written. But a start-up doesn’t have any old customers -- it doesn’t have to worry about backwards compatibility. It was and is the irony of the computer industry -- established companies had to design new products in a straightjacket in order to be backwards compatible, where new companies have all the freedom in the world. Microsoft epitomizes this conundrum -- Windows can still run all of that old, crudy code that ran on DOS in the 80’s!
I spent that first half day along with Fred Coury listening to the pitch. I had a couple of concerns -- the biggest was that they had not come up with an instruction set for this new computer. Instructions are the basic numerical codes that a computer uses -- it’s how the software programs tells the computer what to do. For example, the instruction to add two numbers might be 20, and the instruction to subtract might be 21. A computer might have a couple hundred such instructions. When you design a new computer you can pretty much create whatever instructions you want -- they are unique to each computer. So, the instructions for IBM’s massively popular System 360 line was totally different than CDC’s 6600 computer line. Software written for one could not possibly run on the other. The fact that these guys pitching their idea to us had not yet invented the instruction set was no real big deal, but it meant there would be a lot of additional work up front.
Fred and I had some more questions and we agreed to get together the following week. I think all told I took three half days of vacation to listen and question these guys -- all in the Kleiner Perkins offices in Menlo Park. One funny incident -- once as Treybig and I were driving thru downtown Palo Alto, who walks across the street right in front of us but Bill Terry, a senior HP vice president. Terry knew me and he knew Treybig. I didn’t want to be seen with this venture capital guy so I ducked down inside Jim’s car. I felt a little foolish -- a grown man hiding in the front seat of a car in Palo Alto, but...
At some point I was asked to develop an engineering plan to build this computer -- how many people, how long it would take, what the cost would be, etc. I think my plan said 30 or so hardware and software engineers and about three years, which was about what it would take at HP. That was the last I heard from them -- clearly they were thinking of a shorter time frame, and had noticed that I hadn't been doing cartwheels to get involved. I wasn't their guy. Treybig never called me again and I never tried to contact him. I was very happy at HP and felt I was a rising star. And I wasn’t convinced we could pull off starting a computer company from scratch.
Before long I had totally forgotten about the entire episode. Then one day several months later my mentor/protege Mike Green, the smartest and most valuable guy at Cupertino, came sauntering into my cubicle and told me he was quitting. This was a real shocker. Few people ever left HP, particularly Cupertino. There weren’t any other computer manufacturers in the Valley -- where would you go? And HP was nirvana -- why leave. “Where are you going?” I asked. “I can’t tell you.” This was really odd -- why wouldn’t Mike tell me what company he was joining? I told my bosses and they weren’t very happy about it but it was clear Mike had made up his mind. He gave two weeks notice and then was out the door.
A few weeks later Dennis McEvoy quit. And then Tom Blease. And then Doug Jung. All superstars. They were all joining Mike Green in a new startup called Tandem Computers!! I felt like a total fool -- for not having guessed that Mike was joining Treybig and Perkins to start a fault tolerant computer company!!! The company that they had pitched to me!!! Over the span of about a month the top 10 or so hardware and software engineers left my department for Tandem. Nobody in HP management was happy, but they seemed more upset with Tom Perkins than anyone -- he had been one of their top executives and now he was robbing HP of its best people.
I was in denial. I told anyone who would listen that these guys would not be successful. “They are great at starting projects but not good finishers” was my primary denial line. Soon after they left we got a surprise order from them for an HP 3000! And then another one! HP management was of course very happy to sell 3000’s to anyone, even these guys at Tandem even though no one was sure what they were up to.
Back then it was pretty common to frequently update software like operating systems and languages with new versions that fixed bugs and added features. The Tandem guys wanted all the latest 3000 updates ASAP, and it wasn’t unusual to see McEvoy or one of the others walking around our lab looking to pick up a magnetic tape with the latest 3000 software. These guys were so well known at HP that they just walked by the guards at the front desk. After a couple of months management got wind of this and posted “wanted” posters in the front lobby -- these Tandem guys were not to be allowed to saunter around the HP lab any longer!
I pretty much forgot about Tandem after they stopped robbing us of our best people. I had plenty to occupy me with the 3000. But in 1975 all that changed. Tandem announced their first computer, the T/16. It was amazing -- they basically took all of the best HP 3000 technology and morphed it in to a “Non Stop” computer. Their system programming language, TAL, was essentially HP’s SPL. Their operating system, Guardian, looked suspiciously like MPE. But the most significant thing was the instruction set. They basically copied the HP 3000 instruction set with some improvements for fault tolerance and memory management. This was a great move on their part and one I hadn’t thought of when I was looking at the design: rather than invent a new instruction set, just use the 3000’s! It was a great instruction set and since they came from HP all of the engineers knew it inside and out. This decision greatly simplified the work and saved them a lot of time. But more importantly they took MPE and SPL, the system programming language. They morphed those into Guardian and TAL. Leveraging off this software was a game changer in terms of getting their product out quickly.
I was always amazed that HP didn’t sue them for stealing much of the 3000 design and leveraging so heavily off the work HP put in to their software. I don’t know if they would have prevailed, but HP got ripped off and didn’t do anything about it. HP was just too nice a company to sue — it wasn’t The HP Way. A few years later when I was working for Data General in Massachusetts things were very different. DG sued everybody for any reason: their customers, vendors, employees, competitors!! It seemed like DG spent more money suing people than inventing new computers. I don’t think the Tandem guys would have gotten away with ripping off DG. If nothing else, DG would have expended as much energy as possible making Tandem’s life miserable. But HP was motherhood-and-apple pie. This was not their style.
If today HP suddenly woke up and decided to sue Tandem they would be suing themselves. Tandem is now buried somewhere deep inside HP -- Tandem was acquired by Compaq in the late 90’s, and when Compaq and HP merged Tandem became part of HP. Think about what would have happened if Perkins had not cancelled Omega. Then the Tandem guys would have stolen a 32 bit design rather than 16 bits. Who knows — maybe with that huge technical edge Tandem would have become the premiere computer company. Instead, they faltered in the late 90’s and were eventually acquired….
For several years I was kicking myself for not being a founder of Tandem. I let a golden opportunity slip through my fingers. But in the long run Tandem’s success was the best thing that ever happened to me -- it was the motivation for starting my own company in 1980.
The real mystery to me was: what happened to the two engineers that I met in 1974 with the big idea? They seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth! The Tandem lore eventually developed that it was Treybig's idea -- that he had come up with it while at HP. But that's not how it happened. Only myself, Tom Perkins, Jim Treybig, Fred Coury, and one or two others know the real story -- that two smart engineers came to Kleiner Perkins with an innovative idea of taking the redundant approach for hardware that telco had been using for years, and applying it to a commercial computing system. Their idea was not only the genesis of Tandem Computers, a fantastically successful company, but it also saved Kleiner Perkins, which at the time was a struggling VC company with no prior successes.
For a while I figured these two guys wound up at the bottom of San Francisco Bay wearing custom fitted cement shoes. But I heard recently from one of the early Tandem guys that they did in fact live, and had started a voicemail company that eventually failed. They apparently sued Tandem at one time for taking their idea, but never got anywhere. No matter. They never got the credit for the great idea that not only spawned Tandem, but saved Kleiner Perkins as well. And they never got their stock options....
The biggest problem with the original 3000 was that it didn’t have enough memory to support the giant operating system MPE. Back then main memory was referred to as “core”, because it was made from from tens of thousands of small donut-shaped metallic cores. MPE took up so much core memory that there was almost nothing left for the user’s programs. This is why the original 3000 was such a failure -- it didn’t have enough memory.
While the original 3000 was twisted and tweaked so that it eventually became a salable product, it was still pretty much of a dog. The solution was a new machine that was developed under my bailiwick -- the Series II. With this machine main memory was expanded from 128k bytes to 512k bytes. This fourfold increase freed up significant memory and finally allowed the machine to operate without thrashing itself to death. But now we faced a new problem: the sales force had been burned once, and they didn’t want to be burned again. Sales guys don’t get their commission unless they deliver something. To spend months of time working on a sale, and then to be unable to deliver the product therefore not get paid was a real turnoff. We had to somehow get the sales force excited about the Series II.
I had a poster made up and sent to all the sales offices around the world. It showed a curve of exponential growth over time, with the huge title at the top: “HP 3000. Your Future Depends On It!!!” Not too subtle. I immediately got word back that sales thought this poster was a total waste of money -- that we should be spending our energies and resources developing products. (When our artists showed me the initial draft of the poster, they first presented me with an alternative. “Bill”, they said, “this one shows what we think you really meant to say.” They unrolled a beautiful poster with the exponential growth curve. But this one said: “HP 3000. Sell the Motherfucker Or Else!” I wish I had kept a copy of that hilarious poster.
Then someone came up with an idea. Dave Packard was the most revered person at HP -- even more respected and certainly more feared than Bill Hewlett. Packard was now back from the Defense Department and thoroughly ensconced at HP. The idea was that Dave Packard and myself, as the Engineering Manager in charge of the 3000, would sit down and have a “fireside chat”. HP had invested in videotape technology as an employee training tool and had a great studio in Palo Alto for filming such a program. It would be partially scripted with Packard asking me the appropriate questions and eventually giving his blessing of the 3000. The tape would be sent to HP offices around the world.
This would be my second solo visit with Packard. This time I scrubbed up and wore a business suit! I even got a hair cut. The big man came into the studio, crisply dressed and intimidating as always. I was very nervous -- this guy was not to be messed with. I introduced myself and he showed no hint that he remembered who I was from the debacle on the airplane a few years earlier. I was certainly not going to remind him. We sat very close together for the TV cameras, his foot almost touching mine.
The interview went off as scripted. He asked me a bunch of questions about what was wrong with the original 3000 and what we had done to fix it. He ended by telling the audience that he was certain the 3000 Series II was a fine product and would be a big hit in the market place. When the cameras shut off and the lights dimmed, he grabbed my knee with his big hand, squeezed real hard, leaned over and looked me in the eyes. “Foster, you got me on tape endorsing your computer. The God Dammed Thing Better Work!” Packard stood up and left the room quickly. Seemed like like once again he was in a hurry to get away from me.... That was the last time I saw the Big Man. Somewhere in the HP archives that tape must still exist. What I would give to get a copy.....
The 3000 went on to be an extremely successful product for HP. In many respects it launched them as a legitimate player in the computer industry. It’s design was ahead of the time in 1970. But by the mid-70’s hardware technology had caught up with the 3000’s really cool architecture, and in particular its operating system. HP eventually made a microprocessor version of the 3000 and continued to produce various forms of it well into the 2000’s.
One day in the late summer of ’76 I was sitting in my cubicle fat, dumb, and happy when I got a phone call. “Bill, my name is Don Bateman and I work for Data General. Ed de Castro, our president, will be in the Bay Area and he would like to meet you.” My response was “What are you, some kind of a head hunter?” Don assured me he worked in Personnel for DG and the call was legitimate.
I had heard of DG, but knew little about them. I knew they were relatively young (8 years old in 1976), that they seemed to have a very good product, and they were growing fast. We didn’t run into them much in the marketplace because they were more focused in the “OEM” business where small computers were used to control some kind of a bigger system -- such as a paper mill. We were more focused on end-user commercial applications. But we were beginning to run into DG now and then. Currently we were involved in a big battle with them at Hyster in Chicago -- the forklift company.
Just as I had done with Perkins and Treybig, I figured there was no harm in talking to DG. I was curious, and also flattered that de Castro would want to meet me. Turns out he was flying into San Francisco the next week at the same time I was going out of town. We would meet in the airport.
I immediately got a copy of DG’s latest annual report. They were soaring!! Growing like crazy. One of the most impressive annual reports I had yet seen -- and in MBA school at The University of Santa Clara I had seen many. I studied up and then met Ed. He was not what I expected. Ed was very quite, very shy, spoke in a very low voice -- you almost had to strain to hear him. I have known Ed now for almost 40 years and I have never heard him raise his voice.
Ed was an accomplished pilot and since flying was and is one of my passions we hit it off right away. But what he really wanted to talk about was a job opportunity at DG. There were four original founders and one of them, Henry Burkhardt, was leaving. Henry had many responsibilities and one of them was running software. So, DG needed someone to replace Henry. Although the title would not be Vice President the job would involve reporting directly to Ed. That sounded pretty cool to me -- reporting directly to the head of a smaller company rather than being several layers of management down from Hewlett and Packard at a big company.
The following month, in August, I was in Baltimore for the annual HP 3000 User’s Group meeting. Marian was with me and after the meeting we snuck up to Boston so I could interview with DG. I met all key players and got a tour of their facilities west of Boston. Everything went well although I was somewhat puzzled that they never took me to the software division, located a few miles down the road. That evening I got a call from Ed asking if Marian and I would like to go flying with he and his wife Jeanie the next morning. Great!! We flew to Springfield in his new Beechcraft Baron, and as far as I was concerned the deal was sealed.
A couple of weeks later Bateman called me again and gave me the job offer. He asked how much money I expected and afterwards I was kicking myself because they gave me exactly what I asked -- I know I could have gotten more if I had asked for it. But they also offered me a stock option and that was totally new and exciting -- HP didn’t do that.
Now believe me, in 1976 no one was leaving California, particularly Silicon Valley. Everyone was coming to the Valley -- that was the place to be if you were in technology. Images of the Summer of Love and Altamonte were still in young people’s minds. But Marian and I were excited about living back east. We figured it would last three, maybe five years at the most. Having spent our entire short lives in the Bay Area, we were excited about moving to New England.
In 1976 there were a ton of new technology companies in the Valley, and one of them, Intel, seemed to be making a move. Many engineering students came to Stanford or UC Berkeley to get educated, and once they saw the culture and environment of the Bay Area few left. I interacted with at least a hundred people at HP and 95% of them were not California natives. Leaving that state in 1976 was definitely bucking the tide.
Other than the 20 or so people that went to Tandem, few people ever left HP back then. And virtually no senior manager ever left. I never heard of anyone leaving for a direct competitor. So, I was pretty sure they would not be happy when I quit.
I came in to my office in Santa Clara one Sunday and cleaned out my desk. I left my company car in the parking lot and Marian picked me up. (Back then one of the few dumb things HP did was give managers at a certain level a company car. It caused a lot of tussles -- people whining about someone else having a better car, etc. When I was promoted to Engineering Manager I was given a Ford sedan -- painted an ugly shade of green. We called it the Green Pig. But it was free -- what the heck?)
First thing on Monday morning I walked into my boss’s office. Ed McCracken was the manager of our General Systems Division. He had worked his way up the ladder from Marketing -- was once a peer of Jim Treybig and was part of the crew that was deathly afraid of Vallender. I gave Ed my neatly typed-up resignation letter. He was visibly shaken -- like he had been punched in the stomach. This really surprised me because I never thought Ed liked or even thought much of me. He was pretty much a cold fish -- I almost never saw him laugh or tell a joke. Pretty much strictly business all the time. When I meet people in business situations I judge them by whether or not I would want to work for them. Ed fell into the negative box -- but I did work for him and had no choice. (In retrospect, Steve Vallender was by far the best person I ever worked for.)
In the letter I didn’t say where I was going, but Ed asked and I told him. He seemed surprised and I learned later that he had in fact interviewed with Data General a few months earlier and declined whatever job they offered him -- it was probably VP of Marketing. Ed briefly tried to talk me out of leaving and then abruptly said “you need to talk to Paul”. He phoned the Wonder Boy and soon I was in Paul Ely's office.
For the first five minutes Paul tried to talk me out of it. He tried to make me feel like a traitor -- a senior HP manager going to a direct competitor. Like I said, back then this NEVER happened. I might have been the most senior HP manager to do such a thing in their entire 36 year history -- I don’t know that for sure but I never heard of any one else in my position doing so.
In a meeting a couple of months earlier Dick Hackborn presented his “future architecture” plan to Paul and about 20 of my peers. I was the lone dissenter because I felt the entire thing was pie-in-the-sky dreamland. It was so complex and comprehensive it would never be achieved. At one point Paul said “well, if that’s the way you feel why don’t you go work somewhere else?” I was reminded of that as Paul chewed me out but I didn’t bring it up. Paul called me “opportunistic”. I was thinking -- what’s wrong with that? Isn't everyone in business, at least the successful one’s, opportunistic? The funny thing was a few years later Paul saw opportunity knocking and left HP for a competitor.
As I stood up to leave I mentioned that my brother worked in Sales and Paul came out with his classic "genetic disorder" comment. Still funny decades later.
And that was it. After seven years I was gone. A great seven years -- I went from being a mathematician and programmer to being a major player in great company that was part of an exploding industry. I learned a lot about computer design. I learned a fair amount about hardware and could mange a bunch of EE’s even though I never took an electrical engineering class. But mostly I learned how to be a manager and how to run a big, complex computer project. This would come in handy in the future.
Hewlett Packard was a great company back then. They had wonderful values -- the sole product of the two men who founded the company in 1939. They treated everyone with respect: their employees, customers, suppliers, even their competitors. The first forty years or so they stuck to Packards’s principles: make a technical contribution, keep dividing big divisions into multiple smaller ones, watch cash carefully. As Bill and Dave got older and lost their influence HP began to change for the worse. They became overly interested in growth, and made a bunch of dumb acquisitions that had nothing to do with technical contribution, but greatly complicated their product line. Various CEO’s wanted to move the company to a more centralized structure, which was totally counter-culture to the employees and pissed off most of them. It's disappointing that some of the old line managers, like Dick Hackborn, who stuck around for decades, were unable to halt the gradual unraveling of HP. Dick was even on the Board while things went south -- the acquisition of Compaq was an example of something Packard abhorred — zero technical contribution.
About 15 years after I had left HP I returned to my old haunt for a business meeting. At Stratus we had chosen their CPU chip for our next computer and I went to see them to discuss various business details. It was hard to recognize the old Cupertino building. It had been recently updated and by now all 50 acres of fruit orchards had been replaced with more buildings. One thing that stood out to was the bicycle racks. They must have had spots for a couple of hundred bikes. High tech affairs, with sophisticated locking mechanisms to prevent rip-off. In 1969 I may have been the first person to ride a bike to work. I just left my bike leaning against the building next to the employee side door. No worries — it was always there at the end of the day. Stealing someone’s bike was not part of The HP Way.
I saw Bill Hewlett two times in the following decade. In the mid eighties I was invited to the annual Bohemian Club encampment in a redwood grove north of San Francisco. This is one of those “only in California” things where a combination of rich businessmen, politicians, and struggling artists hang out for a couple of weeks, tell stories, attend lectures, and generally feel good about themselves. Men only. No outsiders except carefully scrubbed guests like me. Local TV crews hovering overhead in their news helicopters trying to get a peak. One weird tradition is everyone eventually had to pee on a certain giant redwood tree. Don’t ask me why.... My host told me that a few years prior to my visit hookers set up shop in Guerneville, the closest town. One day the local Sheriff showed up at the redwood grove with a videotape of the comings and goings of members of the club and threatened to expose these pillars of society unless it stopped immediately. I can only imagine the horror of it all.
Anyway, Bill was a member of the Bohemian Club and was there at the encampment -- about 200 people attended. He was considered a senior statesman and people would sit around the redwood trees listening to his stories about HP in the early days. People hung on every word -- people like the real estate tycoon Tramel Crow, and Jerry Brown -- at that time in between his stints as governor. I somehow resisted my normal pushy urge, and left Mr. Hewlett alone.
In 1988 as I was flying across the the country who should be sitting behind me but Bill Hewlett. By this time I had graduated to first class and for some reason Bill was not in his private jet. This time I couldn’t resist. “Mr. Hewlett, my name is Bill Foster. I used to work for your company.” He looked up at me with a blank expression. He looked tired. “I used to work with your son Jim -- please tell him I said hello.” As I was writing a note on the back of my business card there was a sudden awareness: “Oh yea, Foster. I remember you. How are things at Apollo?” Stratus and Apollo were about the only New England computer startups in the early 80’s and we were frequently confused. I told him my company was actually called Stratus, gave him my note to Jim, and turned to leave. Suddenly there was a twinkle of recognition in his eye. “Hey Foster”. He was smiling now. “How’s your golf game?”