On Courage

The man behind the largest pivot in technology industry

Andy Grove passed away on March 21 at the age of 79, leaving behind an incredible legacy. He was born in Hungary but as a teenager, he escaped the communist regime at the time and came to the US. He got himself into CCNY but he didn’t speak english and completely flunked his classes in the first semester. He studied chemical engineering at the City College of New York and eventually completing his Ph.D at the University of California at Berkeley in 1963. After graduation, he was hired by Gordon Moore at Fairchild Semiconductor as a researcher and rose to assistant head of R&D under Moore. When Noyce and Moore left Fairchild to found Intel in 1968, Grove was their first hire.

In 1987, Grove became the CEO of Intel. At that time, Intel was a developer of SRAM and DRAM memory chips. They were in a fierce competition against their Japanese counterparts, who were selling their memory chips with some really illegal tactics. Grove could tell the situation was dire and proposed the largest pivot in technology history. His proposal was for Intel to pull out of the memory business entirely and pivot to manufacturing microprocessors.

High Output Management

I can’t imagine what he must have been thinking or going through. It was the early days of Intel and with strong competition on the rise, one wrong move could have destroyed the company. What gives an entrepreneur the courage to go ahead with a bold move like this? I would be sweating bullets and throwing up if I was in that situation. Data can often only give you a glimpse of a hopeful future, but what if that future never comes? A depression reality that some startups with ambitious ideas face. Sometimes, you have to make bold moves because you are expected to, and other times because you have no choice. You hesitantly do it, but in your gut you know that it could all fail.

Grove had the intellectual courage and unwavering confidence in his team to make this pivot successful. His team deeply respected his technical and management skills and backed his proposal to the board of Intel. In hindsight, this move completely changed the world: Under his leadership, Intel produced the chips, including the 386 and Pentium, that helped usher in the PC era. It is easier to connect the dots looking back and seeing that Intel’s move was very well planned but the reality is always messier. There are several lessons that we can learn from Andy’s life but I specifically want to focus on two:

  • Have open and honest conversations with your team. Focus on simplicity instead of flowery language that obfuscates discourse.
  • Have a plan to fix things when you voice your concern over something broken.