The World Needs Another Robert Noyce

Who will lead us?

Yesterday, my living room was jammed with the cameras and lights of a BBC camera crew. I swapped my jeans and T-shirt for a business suit, ran a microphone wire up my shirt and sat down to an interview for an upcoming documentary to be broadcast in the U.K.

The subject of the interview, and the doc, was Dr. Robert Noyce. You may never have heard of him -- or for that matter, neither had the BBC producer until he got the assignment -- and that is a sad, but telling, fact.

That the documentary will only be shown in the U.K., and not in the U.S., is sadder still, especially this year, which marks the 50th anniversary of Noyce's co-invention of the integrated circuit, arguably the greatest product of the 20th century.

I knew Noyce pretty well. As the world's first daily high tech reporter, I was able -- at age 25 -- to meet a lot of the pioneers of the electronics age, many of them now gone, as well as to see some great companies (Apple, eBay, Google) in literally their first weeks in business.

As for Bob Noyce, he was simply one of the greatest human beings I've ever had the pleasure to know; imagine a combination of Edison and Ford, all embodied in one of the most charismatic individuals you'll ever meet. He did, after all, not only invent the product of the century, he also started two companies of legend: Fairchild, that crazy ur-company of the digital age, and Intel Corp., often accurately described as the most important company on the planet. Noyce was also the mentor and father-figure to an entire generation of entrepreneurs, including Steve Jobs at Apple.

Not bad for life that was cut short with a heart attack in 1990 at age 62.

I spent a lot of time with Noyce; indeed, I conducted his last television interview. And I wrote his obituary. And in musing about all of this for the BBC, and thinking back over Noyce's contribution to Silicon Valley and the high-tech revolution, I found myself not only growing sad, but frustrated.

Sad, because death has not treated Bob Noyce as well as life did. Most of the current generation of technogeeks have never heard of the man, even though the Internet, the personal computer and the mobile phone would not have existed without him. His life, remarkable as it was, isn't taught in business schools.

And outside of a building at Intel in Santa Clara, there are no parks or streets or monuments named after him. And when the Nobel committee finally got around to award the Nobel Prize for the integrated circuit, Noyce was already gone … though the recipient, Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments, to his credit publicly stated that he wished that Bob had been there to share it with him.

Frustrated, because, in a very specific way, Silicon Valley and, for that matter, all of U.S. high technology, has never quite recovered from Noyce's untimely death.

Let me explain. There is, at the very top of the tech world, a kind of unwritten but very real career trajectory. Just to get to the launch point requires you to have done almost the impossible and then you leap into the stratosphere from there.

It goes like this: first you must be a successful entrepreneur in a start-up company. Then the company has to become a industry, creating one milestone product after another. Then you must transform yourself from an entrepreneur into a real businessperson and continue to lead the company through all of the obstacles it must face to reach $100 million in sales and 1,000 or more employees.

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