The Intel Trinity

In his latest book, Michael S. Malone ’75, MBA ’77 explores how a born leader, an ethereal genius, and a tough taskmaster built the most important company on the planet. This review first appeared in the Wall Street Journal on July 18, 2014..

Is Intel Corp. the most important company on the planet? It is if you consider that its microprocessors power everything from cellphones to the world’s fastest supercomputer, the Chinese Tianhe 2—which can make up to 33.86 quadrillion calculations per second, slightly faster than the first-generation abacus. For these accomplishments, credit the combined brilliance of the men who created Intel: Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore and Andy Grove, an odd trio whose personalities often clashed yet somehow also complemented one another. They created the architecture for the remarkable enterprise that launched and continues to power the digital world.

Intel’s history and that of Silicon Valley itself, including Hewlett and Packard’s interminably mentioned Palo Alto garage, are fields that have certainly been well tilled before. There are already impressive biographies of Noyce (Leslie Berlin’s The Man Behind the Microchip) and Mr. Grove (Richard S. Tedlow’s The Life and Times of an American), as well as a useful history of the company’s first 30 years (Tim Jackson’s Inside Intel).

What’s been missing is an authoritative work that blends all the key people and the technology with a thorough, up-to-date business history. The Intel Trinity fills that gap. It comes from Michael S. Malone, a prolific and respected writer who has covered the Valley for more than 30 years, most notably at the San Jose Mercury News. Mr. Malone interviewed the principals many times over the years, a credential that is reflected in his splendid capture of their personalities.

Because it’s harder to find poetry in a semiconductor than it is in an iPhone, there’s less natural reader empathy here than in Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. And while the writing is not as fluid as in Mr. Isaacson’s book, The Intel Trinity has the same richness of detail and impressive contextual knowledge of the Valley. Mr. Malone focuses on people rather than bits, bytes, and petaflops, though there’s plenty of nerdy stuff, too. For the technology-challenged, he has included a handy tutorial of basic electronics in the back, which is worth a read before jumping into the main narrative.

To give his title traction and the book a bit of a theological subtheme, Mr. Malone anoints his protagonists with a biblical relationship: Bob Noyce, a preacher’s son from Iowa, is the born leader, a beloved and charismatic Father. Andy Grove, born in Hungary and raised under both Nazi and Soviet occupations, is the brilliant but paranoid Son. And Gordon Moore, a native California “beach kid,” is the kindly, ethereal Holy Spirit, always hovering with carefully measured advice and counsel.

In 1968, Intel came out of the womb of Fairchild Semiconductor, legendary not only for its technology—it revolutionized the fabrication of transistors by making it possible to “print” silicon wafers much like large sheets of postage stamps—but also for its frat-house after-hours culture. Noyce, who had been CEO, and his close friend Mr. Moore, a solid-state physicist who headed up R&D, had decided to strike out on their own, helped in part by $2.5 million in convertible debentures, flogged across the country by Noyce and the venture capitalist Arthur Rock.

Mr. Moore, the son of the San Mateo County sheriff, would later be etched in history for his famous forecast that became the industry’s business model. In a bylined article in an April 1965 edition of Electronics Magazine, Mr. Moore posited that the number of transistors incorporated in a chip would basically double every year. He subsequently scaled the prediction back to doubling every two years, but this trend of exponential growth has held up ever since.

When Mr. Grove, who had been Mr. Moore’s deputy at Fairchild, learned that his mentor was leaving, he begged to come along. Mr. Moore agreed but then added, almost as an afterthought: “By the way, Bob Noyce is involved with this.” To which Mr. Grove immediately thought, “Oh, s—.”

Indeed, much more so than in earlier books on Intel and its principals, the embedded thread of The Intel Trinity is the dirty little secret few people outside of Intel knew: Andy Grove really didn’t like Bob Noyce. The result was that resentments “flowed in various directions” among the executive cubicles. For employees, it was sort of like having to watch a dysfunctional family sit down to Thanksgiving dinner—every day.

At Fairchild, Mr. Grove felt that Noyce was an overrated prima donna who was detached in staff meetings, sitting back while subordinates chewed each other up. An important division manager had become an alcoholic, stumbling in at 11 a.m. for a 9 a.m. meeting, his breath reeking of alcohol. Noyce refused to deal with it. But Mr. Malone posits that Mr. Grove held his nose and jumped in anyway because “he would have followed Gordon Moore to hell if that had been the only choice.” That, and Mr. Grove correctly sensed that the “center of gravity in the Valley’s chip industry was shifting out of Fairchild.”

Things at Intel didn’t start out well. One of the first things Mr. Grove witnessed was the sloppy way his new bosses picked a company name, which they hadn’t bothered to think about before. Noyce and Mr. Moore toyed with several options. N.M. Electronics sounded established but conjured up images of a Quonset-hut headquarters next to a rail siding. Moore-Noyce (with a nod to Hewlett-Packard), when spoken, sounded like “more noise,” the background static of leaking electrons, a dreaded fear of any chip maker. Finally they settled on Intel, an amalgam of Integrated Electronic—and a name that also had the benefit of suggesting intelligence. But to Mr. Grove the process was too undisciplined, another example of Noyce’s casual approach to managing.

True enough, but there’s the argument that one thing a startup needs is an inspiring, swashbuckling boss who lights up a room when he enters it and has the confidence to make anything he’s selling seem much bigger and more important than it actually is. And Mr. Malone makes a compelling case that Noyce was the right man for the job in this phase of the company. “Bob Noyce’s greatest gift, even more than his talent as a technical visionary,” Mr. Malone writes, “was his ability to inspire people to believe in his dreams, in their own abilities, and to follow him on the greatest adventure of their professional lives.”

Mr. Grove also chafed at the risks Noyce took in his personal life. He flew his own plane, which he once almost crashed with Steve Jobs on board. He also had open affairs with two attractive Intel employees, the second of whom—the head of Intel’s human resources—eventually became wife No. 2.

Noyce hid from Mr. Grove, who was in charge of operations, the fact that Intel had a secret skunk works developing a microprocessor, a single general-purpose chip that would perform multiple functions—logic, calculation, memory, and power control. Noyce had the man who was running it report directly to him rather than to Mr. Grove, even though Mr. Grove was his boss on the organizational chart. When Mr. Grove learned what was going on, he became furious, but like the good soldier he was, he snapped to attention and helped recruit a young engineer from Fairchild to be in charge of the project, which ultimately redefined the company.

Then there was all the public attention that Noyce, known as the “Mayor of Silicon Valley,” attracted. Regis McKenna, the marketing consultant to many of the Valley’s tech firms, once walked into Mr. Grove’s office to find him fuming about a magazine piece that prominently puffed up Noyce and Mr. Moore at Mr. Grove’s expense. “ ‘That’s it. I’m done!’ Mr. Grove shouted, throwing the magazine to the floor. ‘I’m through making those two famous!’ ” But the rant quickly ended and Mr. Grove went back to business as usual. (He’d get his own acclaim: In 1997, he was named Time’s Man of the Year.)

Remarkably, none of this discord seemed to have much effect on the company’s day-to-day operations. Mr. Malone even suggests that the dysfunction empowered Intel’s take-no-prisoners warrior culture. How could this be? One possibility is that Intel employees, observing confrontation among the top brass, saw such behavior as normal, a model to follow, and thus themselves became more competitive. Or perhaps Mr. Grove, who was constantly terrified of failure and obsessed with gaining power (and thus job security), simply suppressed his personal hostilities as best he could and imposed his own kind of totalitarian rule, always pushing everyone to ramming speed.

So while the humble, self-effacing Mr. Moore, who had his own time in the CEO’s chair from 1975 to 1987, played out his role as Intel’s big thinker, the brilliant visionary “who could see into the technological future better than anyone alive,” Mr. Grove was the kick-ass enforcer. No excuses. For anything.

One misstep that Mr. Grove made himself was his handling of the infamous 1994 Pentium bug. It was a relatively minor flaw that the average spreadsheet user, Intel figured, might encounter every 27,000 years. So Intel did nothing.

But the stonewalling triggered media cries of coverup, damaged the company’s reputation for technical superiority, reinforced its image of arrogance, and generated numerous jokes: “What’s another name for the Intel Inside sticker they put on Pentium-based computers? A warning label.” About a month into the mess, Mr. Grove finally caved and announced that Intel would replace any parts a customer wanted replaced. The storm passed, but it was a humbling experience.

Mr. Malone brings us up to the present with the CEOs who followed the Trinity: Craig Barrett, Paul Otellini and the current chief, Brian Krzanich. Messrs. Barrett and Otellini could probably best be characterized as treading water during their turns in the bucket. Mr. Krzanich has the dual challenge of keeping Moore’s Law alive and fending off Samsung and the U.K.’s ARM Holdings, both of which have dented the company’s dominance and shaken its confidence in key markets like smartphones and tablets.

It won’t be easy. Yes, Intel is still formidable, with a market cap of $168 billion and annual sales of over $53 billion. But over the long haul, certainly the company’s biggest challenge—the undercurrent of Mr. Malone’s narrative—is that without the unique mix of management skills, vision, and brilliance of the original team, Intel is in peril of losing the risk-taking mentality that made it the market leader.

The case books are filled with examples of what happens when companies start worrying more about protecting what they have than discovering what they can be. That’s a club Intel’s Trinity would have never thought of joining.

Stewart Pinkerton is former managing editor of Forbes and former deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal.

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