The Via Hewlett-Packardia

This page written circa 17 August, 2002.

The Roman Empire liked its roads straight and wide and long and durable, good for marching the legions promptly from post to post. Manhattan, to a great extent, is laid out on a regular square grid of Streets and Avenues. This is a sensible way to lay out a town if the main concern is to make navigation easy and buildings regular. Decades ago, I looked out from my hotel room in Paris and saw les grands rues, long and straight and radiating from the major traffic circles, intersections, and architectural landmarks and occasionally intersecting at odd angles. Though it promoted aesthetically pleasing architecture, it seemed there must be another logic. I learnt that is the sensible layout if you want to be able to watch movements from a few vantage points, as did Napoleon's prefect. The "right" way to do something changes with time and circumstance, but "rightness" has a common theme. This "rightness" or goodness or soundness of design relies on the logic that derives details from priorities.

Our VP asked a group of us recently if we thought that the "HP Way" was dead. Someone ventured the answer yes, because Bill and Dave would never have laid anyone off as Agilent has done, and may again do. This answer misses the point. They hopefully would not have subscribed to the trendy corporate philosophies that got companies like Agilent into the current crunch, but they might well have had to take this way out, if they had got so stuck.

I think the "HP Way" is not a list of ways of doing things. It is the process of solving every problem---technical, corporate, social---innovatively, from first principles. The evidence is a list---cubes not offices, engineers working without shirt and tie, stock offerings to all employees, pocket scientific calculators, network analysers, tenure, sampling scopes, Labs, atomic clocks---but the "way" is using an innovative solution that so often meant the company lead the way amongst companies. HP was the model for Silicon Valley. I believe the HP Way is also the approach that says "make this a good, supportive, fun company for the employees" and then if this makes you profitable, well that means you will prosper. Greed may or may not be good, but it is with us, and yet it does not have to be the motivation. (For the record, it seems that Agilent still puts the goal of employee satisfaction as a priority, though reports have it that HP does not.)

A few years ago Tony and Jim and I ran a booth at the trade show at MTT. At some point I was pushing some of our stuff back to the hotel and some crazed guy runs up and demands to know who I work for. Later on I figured out that he must have noticed I was not a member of his union, and being a fanatical adherent to such philosophies he wanted to know what company he should attack. I had not then, and have never again, seen anyone that left-twisted, not in the flesh. A few of those would explain a lot of Nixons and Thatchers and ultraviolence. Such an attitude---or at least the unstable extreme implementation of it that this guy had---is very unproductive for companies and countries and mankind. It is adversarial and unthinking, a solution that needs no innovation and accounts for little external circumstance, but one that can be followed by any knucklehead whose ancestors could rub two sticks together.

I do agree that the HP Way is dead, or at least asleep, at Agilent. My greatest frustration, apart from the fact that my salary has not been increasing, is the fact that ideas have no way of progressing, that nobody tries out things, technical or managerial. We do not lead, we do not try anything that nobody else tries, and yet we do things new to us but ones that other companies are doing. It seems we always follow, moving forward by implementing an idea we did not invent. That is not completely true---the 86107A is a product based on an idea from within and gives us a clear technical lead, but sadly it is in a narrow market, and it is a rare example.

If ever we needed a technical advance, it is a version of myxomatosis or Calcivirus that is fatal to unthinking militants and faddish CEOs, for surely they are second only to Al-Qaida terrorists and Enron executives in the extent to which they harm America's productivity and squander mankind's resources, while being more plentiful. If Agilent used the "HP Way" it would be building a road laid out a new way, not like Nortel, or Lucent, or indeed the HP of today or the HP of old.

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