The Intel Trinity: A book review by Bob Morris

Intel TrinityThe Intel Trinity: How Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove Built the World’s Most Important Company
Michael S. Malone
HarperBusiness/An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers (2014)

How a crucible of leadership created Intel, “the world’s most important company”

What we have in this volume is a biography of a great organization rather than a history of it. Moreover, Michael Malone focuses on three quite different leaders – Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andrew Grove – who overcame their several and significant differences in order to build what became, and remained for decades, “the world’s most important company.”

According to Malone, “Anyone who attempts the history of a giant corporation that is half a century old faces the inevitable problem of weighing eras and subjects.” I agree and it’s obvious that he explored just about all the essential sources when assembling the historical material he needed to do full justice to Noyce, Moore, and Grove as well as to Intel, the company they led for several decades. That was a significant challenge and there were others. “It becomes even more complex when you try to tell the story through not one or two founders, but three — all of them very different in personality and not even necessarily liking one another. Finally, there is the challenge of writing about a technology company. How deep do you go into the arcana of bits and bytes, silicon and software, transistors and teraFLOPS, without losing the average reader or insulting the tech-savvy reader?”

These are among the subjects of greatest interest to me that Malone examines with rigor and eloquence:

o When and why Intel was founded
o The defining characteristics of each of the “trinity”: Noyce, Moore, and Grove
o The extent to which the differences between and among them help to explain how and why Intel became “the world’s most important company”
o The nature and extent of that importance
o The most valuable business lessons to be learned from Intel’s “darkest moments”
o The significance of “Moore’ Law” and its relevance to today’s global marketplace
o The significance of Intel 4004 in 1971
o Why Intel abandoned the memory business and focused on microprocessors in 1985
o The “legacy” of each of the three: Noyce, Moore, and Grove

Here in Dallas near the downtown area, there is a Farmer’s Market at which several merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that spirit, I now offer a representative selection of brief excerpts from the narrative that suggest the thrust and flavor of Malone’ approach:

o “To understand Intel and the three men who led it, you must first understand the Silicon Valley and its beginnings. To do that, you need to know the stories of Shockley Transistor, the Traitorous Eight, and Fairchild Semiconductor. Without that understanding, Intel Corporation will remain — as it does to most people — an enigma.” (Page 3)

o “With Grove, Intel beat or destroyed them all…but might well have destroyed itself in the process had not Gordon Moore been there to temper Andy’s ferocity and round his sharp corners. Gordon was Bob’s foundation and Andy’s conscience: a remarkable feat of partnership and adaptation, given that he was dealing with two of the biggest personalities of the age. He was the insulator between these two charged characters — and perhaps most remarkable of all, he filled that role (and dealt with growing fame and wealth) while remaining true to himself.” (116)

o “Was Bob Graham’s firing good for Intel? History says that indeed it was. The company was heading into a difficult era, one that threatened to tear it in two. And as much as it needed a talented marketer to sell its revolutionary new products, it needed even more a numbers-oriented marketer who could convince the equally number-oriented engineers and scientists inside Intel to follow his lead. And in Gelbach, Intel found exactly the right man.” (183)

o “At the heart of this story about Intel is the message that the company succeeded and reached the pinnacle of the modern economy not because its leadership was so brilliant (although it was) nor because its employees were so bright (though they were), nor that it had the best products (sometimes yes, most times no), nor that it made fewer mistakes than its competitors (completely wrong), but because Intel, more than any company America has ever known, had the ability to [begin italics] learn [end italics] — from its successes and even more from its failures.” (371)

o Grove on a shared epiphany in the middle of 1985: “I looked out the window at the Ferris Wheel of the Great America amusement park revolving in the distance, then I turned back to Gordon and asked, ‘If we got kicked out and brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?’ Gordon answered without hesitation, ‘He would get us out of memories.’ I stared at him, numb, and then said, ‘Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, then come back and do it ourselves?'” (390)

o “Most of all for the three men of Intel’s Trinity, even in the worst times, working at Intel was [begin italics] exciting [end italics]. It was the most engrossing thing in their already remarkable lives. And that excitement — of competition, of advancing technology, of transforming the world, and most of all being part of the Intel family — made it worthwhile to come to work each day even if they were already living legends and billionaires.” (487)

o Grove’s most revealing reflections: “Gordon did impress me at the beginning but more than that, he always stood by me. Bob impressed me, too, but there was so much that I didn’t like about him. His charisma put me off. His management style put me off. His inability to make decisions put me off. So did his unwillingness to actually learn the business. I didn’t like those things in him that the world most admired him for.” But then there was the time when Noyce crawled under Grove’s car as snow began to fall and attached chains to the tires “while me and my wife and our daughters just stood there, watching helplessly. That was the best of him. So was his risk taking, his impressive physical courage, and his intellectual clarity. That was the part of him I loved, not all the famous stuff.” Grove’s rigid face could no longer betray his emotions but in his eyes, tears begin to swell. “After all these years, I miss Bob the most.” (498)

In my opinion, Michael Malone not only met but indeed prevailed when taking on various challenges noted earlier. I think his approach is best described as that of a cultural anthropologist whose primary interest is in the “Trinity”: Noyce the charismatic father, Grove the truculent son, and Moore, the holy spirit of high tech. Their collaboration was, as I characterize it, a “crucible of leadership,” one that accomplished so much, at least for a significant period of time. Intel powered the global Internet economy while reconciling its endless need to drive chip technology forward at the exponential pace of Moore’s Law with its retrograde pull of its glorious past. Paraphrasing a line from Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, this is a tale well-told, full of sound and fury, signifying…so much that may never occur again.

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