Remembering Andy Grove

 

Andy Grove liked ice cream. After a restaurant dinner, he’d often stop by the Los Altos Baskin-Robbins, located on State Street near the office he used in retirement. It was always fun to go with him, because even in his seventies, Andy retained a childish eagerness for that sugary treat. I’ve never known anyone else who admitted to liking Baskin-Robbins, and it’s not the place you’d expect to meet the great Andrew S. Grove.

After all, Andy, who’d been the CEO of Intel during the height of its success and power, ranks high among the most respected and influential business leaders of our time. In collaboration with Microsoft’s Bill Gates, he had utterly dominated the personal computer business during its peak years, back when Steve Jobs and Apple were also-rans. Famously tough, Andy seemed to believe that most people were idiots—if not actively malign—and his capacity to be frustrated by idiots was without observable limit. His default setting for trust and respect for strangers was OFF. Grown men would hide from him. And yet Andy was a softie for cheap ice cream.

He was also, at heart, a writer, certainly a communicator. With Robert A. Burgelman, he taught a crazy-popular Stanford course whose title, “Strategic Thinking in Action,” perfectly described Andy himself. He wrote four books, including High Output Management, a practical explanation of how to organize human beings to produce results, which rivals the most thoughtful and lucid work of Peter Drucker. Andy’s Only the Paranoid Survive became a major best-seller.

My personal favorite is Swimming Across, Andy’s tender, brutal memoir of a Hungarian childhood twisted by ruin, scarlet fever, anti-Semitism, and hostile occupations by the armies of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s U.S.S.R. Anyone who doubts Andy’s literary chops should read his account of his mother’s violation by a Russian soldier, told from the uncomprehending perspective of a little boy. There’s plenty of ice cream in the book, too, soothing the pain. Along the way, Andy lingers on his pride in writing a daily column for the school newspaper. “My other fantasy,” he said, “was to become a writer.” That fantasy, perhaps, was the seed of our relationship.

Here’s a description of how Andy’s mind worked. To set the stage: He was a university student in Budapest, facing his final assignment in inorganic chemistry. The challenge was to identify the compounds in a “mystery solution.” Instead of following the laborious, generic experimental process he’d been taught, Andy had opted for what he called the “high-risk option,” devising his own series of experiments.

Increasingly, I lived in my own little mental cocoon, inorganic compounds and elements dancing in front of my eyes day and night. We had one more week left, and I was seriously worried.

I was heading home after a late afternoon in the lab. I took the tram. I liked to let other people crowd on first so I could hang on the outside steps with the spring air blowing in my face. It was a slightly dangerous position, but a very refreshing one. This evening, I was hanging on the outside as usual, looking ahead in the gathering May dusk, but I didn’t see the traffic or the familiar streets going by. My mind was filled with atoms and molecules and experimental schemes.

Then, all of a sudden, I got it. I don’t know what set it off. The experimental results that were floating around in my head suddenly jelled and the confusion of the previous weeks coalesced into a solid version of where I was and where I needed to go. I jumped off the tram and ran home. I took out my notes and checked to see whether my recollections of the past experimental results were correct. They were. I couldn’t wait to get back into the lab the next day. With complete confidence, I planned the next sequence of experiments to confirm my hypothesis. They worked.

This is what drew me to Andy. I found something deeply simpatico in the way his mind worked, the way it opened itself so generously to bursts of creative insight.

We met in 1993. At the time, Andy was emperor of Intel and I was a bushy-haired writer for Fortune magazine, sixteen years his junior. The magazine’s editor wanted to run a piece about Andy’s big ideas, to appear under Andy’s own by-line. My assignment was to ghost-write the thing, which meant interviewing the Intel CEO at length and then editing the transcript into a tight, interesting article. I’d done this before, with Dennis Levine, the insider trader successfully prosecuted by Rudy Giuliani; and Jim Rogers, the onetime partner of George Soros who later chronicled his motorcycle trip around the world in Investment Biker.

When the Intel PR person called me back, I asked for six hours with Mr. Grove. I’d never met the CEO, but figured that was the minimum we’d need to gather and refine material for an article worthy of Fortune’s 900,000 readers. I listened to a long pause on the telephone line. Then: Um. That’s not likely to happen. Let me check.

Next day, the PR person calls back: Sorry. No way you’re getting six hours. Must have been eaten alive by Intel’s outraged boss.

Then no story, I responded. This was CEO Negotiation 101, as I had learned it. Fortune was a big deal in those now-distant days, and we senior writers, however inconsequential in ourselves, had learned to leverage its power.

Soon enough, Andy relented, fuming, and I flew west to interview him. He was a compact, skinny guy with curly brown hair rising high above a gleaming brow, fierce intelligence and emotional warmth mingling in his eyes, and a charming Hungarian accent. Andy was all energy, positively crackling with willpower and brains. He worked out of an ostentatiously crappy beige cubicle at Intel HQ, just like everyone else’s; we met in a dull conference room. Having greeted me with a certain pained European irony, Andy started tearing into me for my absurd request for six hours of his invaluable time. Do you have any idea and so forth. Somehow, right then, feeling the full blast of his intensity, I knew we’d get along. He was pissed off, sure. But he was already interested in this disrespectful idiot from Fortune. We ended up getting along fine.

During six hours of conversation spread over two or three days, Andy the craftsman writer used me as a carpentry tool, first hewing his ideas, then shaving and polishing them. Early on, I recognized that I was encountering one of the great minds of my lifetime—if not the person with the absolute highest IQ, then an individual who knew how to achieve the maximum practical effect from his outsized allotment of smarts.

The resulting cover story, “Invest or Die,” published on February 22, 1993, is still worth reading now. The ideas are simple and bold; the predictions hold true. Like Gates, Andy was so intricately networked with other business leaders, he so comprehensively understood the complex dynamics of the vast markets he served, that he could accurately foretell the future years ahead. In both leaders, this gift for prognostication was not some intuitive voodoo but information processing of the highest order, human intelligence at its utilitarian best. If big data ever replaces such wetware, we’ll all be worse off. (You’d have to visit an old-timey library to read my encounter with Gates’s predictions, in “Microsoft’s Drive to Dominate Software,” Fortune, January 23, 1984.)

Having gotten acquainted, Andy and I proceeded to use one another as source and reporter for years. He got his views into the magazine; I got access to his brain—a fair trade. The conversations were cordial, enjoyable, even warm, but I wouldn’t have called us friends.

Then one day, like Andy on the trolley car, I experienced a creative insight—only mine turned out to be a dud. Previously, I had suggested to Jack Welch, then CEO of General Electric and another titan of business leadership, that he meet Bill Gates. I was amused, a few months later, when their companies, Microsoft and GE, launched the joint-venture cable channel MSNBC. Imagining that perhaps I had talent as a CEO matchmaker, I arranged to moderate a panel discussion about radical organizational change, at a conference for the CEOs of the Fortune 500, with Jack Welch and Andy Grove as the panelists.

CEO squeeze (from left): Andy Grove, Strat Sherman, Jack Welch

CEO squeeze (from left): Andy Grove, Strat Sherman, Jack Welch

The photo above fails to capture the catastrophic nature of that event. Andy and Jack met for the first time just minutes before we went onstage. They disliked each other at first sight. Once our public conversation began, it became obvious that each regarded himself as the premier leader of change, dismissing the achievements of the other with disdain. To Jack, Intel was a dinky, one-product company. To Andy, GE was a hand-cart selling buggy-whips. Not only did these two fail to acknowledge each another as peers, they were hissing like cats. They were so busy asserting supremacy and putting each other down that their conversation delivered little insight into the topic they both knew so well: how to lead a complex enterprise, successfully, through radical change.

While I was dying onstage, though, the CEOs in the audience were enjoying the show. For them, it must have been like a sumo-wrestling match, a contest of giants—fun if you like that sort of thing. But my two favorite corporate leaders, whose friendship I had hoped to broker, ended up annoyed by each other and by me.

Eventually, I left Fortune and journalism. Andy retired from Intel. We lost touch.

Then, years later, my friend and former colleague Brent Schlender, who recently co-authored the acclaimed Becoming Steve Jobs, suggested I give Andy a call. I was spending a week each month in Silicon Valley. Brent said Andy had asked about me, and might welcome my company. So I called, sometime in 2011.

Thus began what became, for me at least, a friendship. Andy and I would meet, in his office or at a restaurant for lunch or dinner, every few months. By then he’d been living with Parkinson’s disease for more than a decade, and his speech and physical affect were distorted by the symptoms. His mind and spirit were intact. So was his drive, now directed at finding a cure for what ailed him, much as he had triumphed over prostate cancer years earlier. The target in his sights, however, was bigger than his personal interest: it was the multi-disciplinary process of translational medicine, through which laboratory findings become drugs available to patients. As I understood it, Andy thought the whole shebang was broken and urgently needed fixing. Weakened though he was, Andy was driving for comprehensive, systemic solutions across multiple, highly-regulated industries. When we met at his office, he’d sometimes hand me a presentation he’d prepared, and ask me to edit it. Still shaving and polishing, just as before, and gigantically ambitious.

Other times, when we met for lunch, we’d walk over to Rick’s Café, a coffee shop down the street from Baskin-Robbins. No matter what else we talked about, Andy always would chastise me for giving up writing for advisory work that he, one of the data-driven hard-asses of all time, dismissed uncomprehendingly as “black magic.” Despite his reservations about my new career, Andy expended considerable energy helping me. Over time, I came to know him as a generous man, richly capable of trust, friendship, and intimacy. He could talk about anything, with anguish or merriment or both. By the end, I loved him.

Our last meeting, probably late in 2014 or early in 2015, followed a pause of several months. We’d convened at a different office in Los Altos, fancier than the drab space he shared with his assistant, Terri. Andy’s symptoms—involuntary movements, obstructed speech—had gotten significantly worse. But he wanted to walk to lunch. He was wearing a bright orange-and-white tracksuit and electric-orange running shoes; with that getup, plus the extreme eccentricity of his movements, he attracted a lot of attention. As we walked down the street, I wondered if passersby had any idea who this strange old fellow was, how profoundly his achievements had affected the way we all live, how much courage and effort he invested in every step.

Eating lunch and conversing couldn’t have been easy, either. Whether out of sincere interest or to conserve strength, Andy made me do most of the talking—about my work, my life, my thinking. After our meal, we walked all the way back, step by step.

At the door to his office building, we shook hands. Uncharacteristically, perhaps knowing this was farewell, he offered me a benediction: “Congratulations on keeping your core.” I imagine he meant that my dabbling in black magic had not corrupted me absolutely, at least not yet.

We said goodbye. We ate no ice cream. I never saw him again. Andy died on March 21, 2016. A surprisingly benevolent man.

May all possible good be with Andy and those he loved.

Andy & Strat, 1993

Andy & Strat, 1993

Normale

We’re in the kitchen of Villa Dafne, a Sicilian agriturismo, learning how to cook. Let’s call our teacher Elena. My fellow students are my wife and Marisa Faccio, the latter a former Accompli partner who speaks native Italian and graciously translates.  At our disposal are the superb products of a family farm – artisanal olive oil, wine, cheeses, meats, eggs, vegetables, pasta, bread, herbs – and the proprietors’ time-tested recipes.

Friendly and straightforward, Elena already has taught us how to make such useful basics as basil pesto and tomato sauce. We have prepared an elegant dish of eggplant, thin-sliced and deep-fried, then delicately layered with the basil and tomato sauces plus pinches of grated Parmesan. The lamb chops are seasoned and browning in the oven. Now we are preparing appetizers.

Early on, Elena has recognized my utility as a chopper of onions, garlic, and suchlike, wielding a gigantic, yellow-handled kitchen knife with a skill acquired decades ago in a Cambridge restaurant kitchen. As soon as Marisa translates Elena’s instruction to cut primo sale cheese into pieces, I start in with gusto.

Elena eyes my work critically, arms folded. She says something sotto voce to Marisa.

She says your pieces are too big, says Marisa. Elena vigorously pantomimes her agreement. Way too big – that was clear.

What size should they be? I ask.

Marisa confers with Elena.

She says they should be normal, says Marisa. My former business partner, a gifted advisor to leaders, is starting to enjoy this conversation. I detect mirth in her voice.

Si, si! Normale! agrees Elena, vigorously. She and Marisa exchange a subtle look, which seems to express some kind of solidarity that excludes me.

Just make it normal, explains Marisa. She knows perfectly well that this instruction contains zero useful information, but apparently that is part of the fun.

Okay, so how big is normal?  I ask. I turn to Elena, frustrated enough to test the outer limits of my conversational Italian. Quanto, um, normale?

Elena understands. She holds her thumb and forefinger maybe half an inch apart. Normale, she says again, now with a shrug and a lift of her eyebrows plus an extra tilt of her chin that altogether seem to say, Why are you such a slow learner?

Thus guided, I cut a few half-inch cubes of cheese. Suddenly everyone in the kitchen is happy. We all share the same understanding of what is normal – at least in terms of the size of cheese cubes at Villa Dafne on this particular morning. We finish the preparations cheerfully and, not long after, eat the marvelous meal that we’ve created, including normal-sized chunks of fresh cheese served in olive oil with herbs.

This cheese dish is very tasty indeed. As in all of Elena’s dishes, the proportions are just right to allow distinct flavors to blend — like members of a highly effective team, methinks — a choral singing group, for instance.

For days afterward, Marisa, my wife, and I laugh about normale. We love the faux self-evidence of it, the perfect absence of discernible meaning – and in counterpoint, the vehemence of its expression. If the cause of all failed communication among human beings could be distilled into a single word, we agree, normale just might be it.

After all, this is how people think. We carry within us an acute sense of normale – the way things are supposed to be, what we are accustomed to, what seems so obvious that it’s not worth explaining. When our efforts to communicate fail, we get frustrated with whoever is at the receiving end: What don’t you understand? It’s normale!

Human subjectivity doesn’t translate well, even among people who share the same language. What was normale for Elena was unknown to me. I am confident that my normale would strike her – or  you – as bizarre. So it is for us all. It’s normal for people to misunderstand each other.

Information theory says that the real work of communication is focused on the elements that are unusual, or unfamiliar to the recipient.  To recognize precisely which bits those are, we have to transcend our subjectivity and put ourselves in the other guys’ shoes. What don’t they know that I need to explain?

This reminds me of an old joke. The stranger asks the local, Does your dog bite?

The local says, Nope.

The stranger pats the dog, which immediately, painfully, bites him.

Hey, I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite! the stranger complains.

Says the local, That ain’t my dog.

AccompliGroup.com