The long goodbye

SAN FRANCISCO — Directly opposite the Moscone Center where the Intel Developer Forum is taking place this week sits the local Museum of Modern Art. The featured exhibit is a retrospective look at the work of Eva Hesse, a multidisciplinary artist from the 1960s.

Her drawings are cut-and-paste

jobs where colorful bits of paper are glued onto eccentric line drawings. Some of her fibreglass sculptures, like an open box lined with little tubes jutting towards the centre, looks like an oversize processor pin-grid array turned inside out. Many others resemble mutations of everyday appliances, like leftover accidents from Hesse’s days in industrial design. I think Andrew Grove, Intel‘s chairman, would love them.

If Grove is here at this year’s IDF, he’s invisible. He wasn’t at the last one, and his most recent project was an autobiography of his early years living in Stalinist-era Hungary. Although Intel CEO Craig Barrett said over lunch Monday that Grove is still “”very much involved with the company,”” his legend is growing while his influence gets harder to discern. His gradual exit underscores another long goodbye at Intel, which is the end of the engineer as chief executive.

The transition became evident earlier this year, when former Intel Architecture Group leader Paul Otellini was named president after 27 years of service. His promotion has been widely seen as the stepping stone to the 63-year-old Barrett’s job, given his operational expertise and the fact that Barrett has been handling both jobs since (who knows why Intel still has no COO after four years?).

“”When Andy was CEO, I used to say my job was to do anything that Andy didn’t want to do,”” Barrett said. “”Now I’m saying Paul’s job is to do anything I don’t want to do.”” That means Barrett will focus on the strategy, government relations and industry issues while Otellini will take on the day-to-day.

Nice work if you can get it, and Grove’s career may become an historical relic of the days when an engineer had a chance. Unlike his predecessors, Otellini doesn’t have a Ph.D or engineering credentials behind him. He is a sales guy, and that is not said with any disrespect: at this point, a good sales guy is what Intel needs to stay on top. In this respect his promotion is not unlike the rise of Sam Palmisano, who was recently named to replace Lou Gerstner at the helm of IBM. This is the kind of tenured insider you want to run a mature company that has to negotiate its way into several emerging markets at once.

The only problem — and only time will tell if it actually becomes a problem — is that sometimes salespeople aren’t in touch with the experimental approach that leads to innovation. Even Grove has admitted that Intel did not realize the full implications of its work on the 4004 processor, a predecessor to the PC chip as we know it. Originally designed for a calculator, Grove and others at Intel saw little value in the product and certainly not the incredible impact it would have on our lives. He called the processor development a “”sideshow”” to the other projects Intel was working on, adding, “”Who knows how many other sideshows are going on out there that never see the light of day?””

Indeed. It takes an insightful leader to create conditions in which these kind of accidental but revolutionary discoveries flourish. Last year Grove made some comments in an interview with Esquire which capture his philosophy very well: “”Technology is both an end in itself and a means to other ends,”” he said. “”When you figure something out and make it work, there is pleasure and excitement. Not just because the technology is going to do something, but because you created something with its own inherent beauty, like art, like literature, like music.””

Hard to imagine HP’s Carly Fiorina or Compaq’s Michael Capellas talking like that. If they have not come from technical backgrounds, Intel’s future leaders need to make sure they take the time to understand the sort of mind that is not constantly obsessed with the bottom line and pleasing shareholders. Grove built a successful business and propelled an industry, but he never stopped hearing the music. Hopefully his successors are at least willing to listen for it.

sschick@plesman.com

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