Silicon Insider: Remembering the HP Way

I just got a reminder of what true corporate greatness looks like.

Ever since Mark Hurd arrived to untangle the mess he inherited at Hewlett-Packard Co., there has been a concerted effort to rekindle the legendary HP Way culture. His unmissed predecessor, Carly Fiorina, did a pretty good job of destroying this legendary culture at the company during her quest for personal glory … to the point that even the few survivors of the old days can barely remember what it was like to work for the company once-considered the most enlightened on the planet.

Shrewdly, Hurd realized that there yet remained one last, though diminishing, repository of the HP Way: the company's retired, but still loyal, employees. If their memories could be tapped, perhaps the HP that was lost could be recovered.

Toward that end, even as he was developing a whole new strategy for the company, and racing from division to division around the world restoring morale, Hurd redoubled the company's efforts to restore the fabled Packard garage in Palo Alto (the birthplace of the tech revolution) and to create a video about Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard as described by the men and women who knew them.

This week saw the unveiling of both.

Remembering a Lost World

Last spring, I was invited to HP (where I'd been unwelcome during the Fiorina years) to be interviewed for what was planned to be a low-budget collection of interviews of HP veterans. It proved to be a leisurely morning -- and I soon forgot all about it.

Then, just a couple months ago, I was called again, this time by an award-winning television producer. HP top management had seen the clips -- and been so struck by the lost world described by company veterans that it decided to invest in a full-blown production that could be a cornerstone of the company's renewal.

With a dozen or so others, I was invited back (properly dressed to match the images of six months before) and peppered with more questions. This time I was more prepared, having in the interim signed a major book contract to tell the story of Bill and Dave.

After many years in television, I was pretty used to the camera. But what I wasn't prepared for was the feeling I got walking back into Hewlett-Packard after all these years. As a reporter, I'd covered thousands of companies, but HP was unlike any other. It wasn't just a company, but a glimpse of what a company should be. And if the HP I visited that day wasn't the one I left 25 years before, I could still feel the old resonances, and a growing sense that the company was trying to find its way home.

Feeling Nostalgic, and a Little Old

Monday I attended the video's premiere, held for company veterans at a restaurant near Stanford University. For me, it was like that moment at the end of Proust when Marcel arrives at a party full of the people he's always loved and admired … and suddenly realizes that everyone is 80 years old.

In fact, of all the retired and former HPers in the room, Steve Wozniak and I were the youngest -- and we're both gray-haired. All of the rest were in their 70s and 80s -- the men and women who were hired by Bill and Dave in the 1950s and 1960s, who made the HP Way real, and who, though largely uncelebrated by history, helped define the modern world.

The oldest HPer in the room was Art Fong, now in his 90s, who was already an old-timer when I was an HP intern in 1975. He was recruited by Bill and Dave in 1946. That he was perhaps the first Asian-American engineer ever recruited by a high-tech company made him living testimony to the enlightenment of the two men we came to celebrate.

In fact, if there was one common thread among the distinguished men and women in the room, besides having been senior executives at Hewlett-Packard, it was their continued awe of the two founders for whom they had devoted their careers. No man is a hero to his valet, as the saying goes, and it is a rare CEO who is revered by his vice presidents -- they stand too close not to see all of the flaws and blemishes.

And yet, to a person, these tough old executives -- and believe me, they were tough; I worked for them -- still admired Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard more than any two men they had ever known. And when the video was finished, after they had watched the old movies of the two founders and listened to their own commentaries and those of their peers about Bill and Dave, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. As one of them said: "Looking back, I realize that they really were special. They really were great men."

Why? I think for three reasons:

They cared. I was at a Christmas party of a fast-growing Silicon Valley corporation last week. It was very nice: Santa, games, food, live music. Only one thing was missing -- senior management. Not a single top executive was there mingling with the employees.

I've attended this company's Christmas parties for a number of years now. Early on, the executives did attend, often bringing their families. And the Christmas parties were also more expensive and elaborate. Now, the executives stay away and, though the company is prospering, the Christmas party is low budget. Do the execs really believe the employees don't notice?

By comparison, there are endless stories about the humanity of Bill and Dave. One, told on the video, was of a young engineer sitting at his lab table late one night struggling to test a new product -- when he heard a deep voice behind him asking whether he needed help. It was Dave Packard, who pulled up a stool and worked with the engineer until the wee hours of the morning to get the job done.

Another story, told to me by one of the mothers at my youngest son's school, was about her father-in-law, an HP janitor, who died suddenly. Bill Hewlett personally wrote a note to his family, offering his condolences and offering a job to the man's oldest son to help the family support itself.

Both young men went on to become corporate vice presidents in Silicon Valley.

They trusted. The heart of the HP Way, the challenge few executives have ever had the guts to attempt, and which still makes the HP Way the most progressive management model ever devised, is that it entrusts the fate of the company to every employee. Decision-making is pushed down in the organization as far as it can go, to the person closest to the problem. That was revolutionary then, and it is just as revolutionary now.

One story of this trust is so famous among HPers that I would have dismissed it as myth if the party to it hadn't been in the room this week to confirm it. It took place more than 40 years ago, and involved a new product under development in one of HP's labs. Packard happened to visit the lab, saw the prototype, and declared it worthless. "I don't want to see that thing still being developed in the lab when I come back."

Months later, Packard returned, only to see the product still sitting there. He was furious: "I thought I told you to get rid of that thing." "No sir," said the engineer. "You said you didn't want to see it still being developed when you came back. In fact, it's done and in manufacture." Packard, dumbfounded, stormed off.

The engineer was sure he was going to be fired. Instead, Packard publicly gave him a special award for being a maverick, and announced that he hoped the company had more mavericks just like him.

Ever had a boss like that?

They never looked back. Tuesday was the official reopening of the fully-restored Packard garage, located on a usually quiet residential street in downtown Palo Alto. That day, however, television camera trucks lined the street, cops guarded roadblocks and hundreds of Silicon Valley notables toured through the house, the little shack out back that Bill Hewlett rented from Dave and Lucile Packard, and, of course, the legendary garage.

The garage itself was in fine form. A team of HP volunteers had spent months lovingly removing each clapboard, restoring it and then replacing it. Inside, contemporary items -- an old drill press, vacuum tubes, the company's first product: the audio oscillator -- were carefully placed where they would have been in 1939.

It was all quite moving. From that humble little garage had emanated one of the greatest revolutions in human history -- one that has provided careers for millions of people, extended human longevity, improved human health, vastly increased the world's wealth, and put us on a path of continuous innovation the likes of which humanity has never known. And now, as I watched, the inheritors of that revolution, men and women who themselves run billion-dollar corporations, and who enjoy wealth and power as great as Bill and Dave ever knew, were now reverently filing through, paying their respects to the founding fathers.

I was reminded of the conversation I had at lunch the day before with my old boss Dave Kirby, now 81. He used to run HP public relations, and for 30 years, he was Packard's speechwriter.

We were talking about the Packard garage, when he laughed and said, "You know, I remember almost 20 years ago when they declared the garage a state landmark and had a little ceremony. I drove Packard over there and as we were walking up the driveway he turned to me and said: 'You know, this is the first time I've been back here in 50 years.'

"That was Dave Packard. He never understood what all the fuss was about. For him, it was always just a damned garage; and he was glad to get out of it. What he cared about, even when he was an old man, was the future. What mattered to him was what was next."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone, once called "the Boswell of Silicon Valley," is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury-News as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for the New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest circulation business/tech magazine, at the height of the dotcom boom. Malone is best-known as the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "The Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently was co-producer of the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.