Archive for January, 2010

The “dy” Logo

January 18, 2010

I enjoyed reading  the new book about innovation at Hewlett-Packard  that Chuck House and Raymond Price just published[1]. It’s quirky and curiously researched, but, most of all, I was happy to read their account of Carly Fiorina’s tenure as CEO at HP.  History was in need of some fact-based revision.   If ever worlds collided, it was at HP when Carleton S.  Fiorina took over the reins after a stunning rise through the executive ranks at ATT/Lucent.  Chuck  points out that, although Carly was not well-liked by her employees (even her direct reports, many  of whom  ultimately undermined her), she sowed the seeds for Mark Hurd’s success.

The executive suite at HP Headquarters on Page Mill Road in Palo Alto was in those days a row of large cubicles, and, in keeping with  the HP culture, there were no doors and no outer offices.   Everyone’s office  — including Carly’s — was really just a cubicle. Carly insisted that I have two offices: one in HP Labs adjacent to the museum-like offices of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard — these were not cubicles but were real offices,  impeccably maintained in their original 1960’s orange-and-brown Madmen decor —   and the other next to hers overlooking  a Japanese garden.    Carly’s executive council met nearly every week in a nearby conference room whose glass wall looked out over the same garden.

Several   council members had offices elsewhere, but those of us who had direct access were within a thirty-foot radius of her office.  These were the Gold Badge days at HP when a favored few retirees were granted the privilege of unrestricted, lifetime access to any building and any office suite in the company. The daily comings and goings telegraphed events that would not be visible outside the CEO’s office for days or weeks, even among business heads who had broad authority over multi-billion dollar enterprises.  This turned out to be an important vantage point from which to view sand being  thrown in the gears during HP’s acquisition of Compaq, but I will save these stories for later posts.

Chuck House had been gone from HP for some time when Carly arrived, so his account is based on interviews with a relatively narrow slice of insiders who were his colleagues — an impressive number of people, to be sure, but in a company with 80,000 employees not enough for a definitive portrait.  But House has never been shy about charging ahead when the terrain looks interesting, a personality trait that once earned him a medal from Dave Packard for “Extraordinary Contempt and Defiance Beyond the Call of Duty.”  It was awarded to commemorate a mutinous tour of customer sites to demonstrate a new display monitor after HP management in Colorado Springs had decided to shut it down.   Nevertheless, House’s account gets many things right.  One of the things he misses was what Fiorina brought to HP:  a WWC focus on the customer that was foreign to HP’s engineering culture before her arrival.

House and Price defer to old-guard HP employees in characterizing Carly as a marketer, a fiction that was rooted more in style than in substance.  Fiorina was unnervingly accurate in her assessment of general  market trends,  like the importance of the internet to HP’s mainline businesses,  but, in fact, she was a consummate saleswoman.   What she brought to the table was not the “let’s-see -what -they-think-about-this” arrogance of corporate marketing organizations,  it was the ability to listen to customers, sift through encyclopedic  knowledge of internal plans and projects, and  envision a solution.  Sometimes a  solution was forthcoming.  Sometimes it took a little while longer than customers were willing to wait.  But sometimes solutions were sabotaged.   To have an HP outsider from the East Coast — a telephone equipment salesman, not an engineer — propose a solution to customer problems was an unpardonable sin to some.   It was a WWC culture class that she was slow to recognize.

She was widely criticized for her lack of operational experience, but  the truth is that Carly delegated operational authority too widely and to managers with suspect motives (including past and future pretenders to the throne).  As a newcomer,  I tended to apologize for injecting long-range thoughts into the very operational discussions of the Executive Council, until one day Carly stopped me and said: “You don’t have to apologize for that.  It’s true that we’ll never get to the long-term without taking care of the short-term, but it’s the long-term that makes the short-term worth doing at all.”

Council chemistry changed in the months before the Compaq merger. Vyomesh Joshi took over as head of the imaging and printing business unit.  V.J. is not only a brilliant executive, he is a skilled engineer, whose technical  insights  were mainly responsible for transforming ink jet printing.

The other major additions were Pradeep Jotwani and Iain Morris.  Pradeep had control of worldwide consumer  sales.  He was fond of  long discourses —  sometimes literary, sometimes merely speculative — but their effect was always to slow down a speeding train and turn the discussion in a direction that was more productive.  Iain is a big, brash, Harley-riding  Scott  who Carly recruited from Motorola to carve out emerging businesses  like handheld computers and  entertainment.  Carly quickly transferred   the personal computer businesses to Iain from Duane Zitzner’s  computer business unit where they had languished as unprofitable also-rans.  Morris knew hardware, software and manufacturing from his days at Motorola, and he was also a great salesman.

At one of his first Council meetings, Iain walked in with an HP laptop and stopped everyone cold when he opened it up and bellowed: “What’s wrong here?”  When you  looked at an open HP laptop from the back, the “hp” logo was upside down. It read “dy”, and of course,  that was the way most people saw the laptop:  open and  from the back, inverted logo.  If anyone before had noticed this, it never made it to the upper reaches of management.  The order went out immediately to invert the logo and all of the millions of HP laptops produced since that time now display the logo right side up,  so that it reads “hp”.  It upset some of the industrial designers who argued that laptops were closed a lot of the time and that the orientation of the logo doesn’t matter when a laptop is closed.  It took a salesman’s eye to recognize that it was stupid to have millions customers staring at a “dy”  laptop.

This episode followed on the heels of two other quick-shifts.  One involved HP’s always painful  Federal sales performance.  I will talk about this more fully in a later post.  The other involved architectural consistency,  a concept that bridged customer issues and product design.

Shortly after VJ took over the imaging and printing business, he held an advanced projects review for me in San Diego.  I was struck but the ubiquity of infrared (IR) connectivity ports on HP printers and cameras, and mentioned it to VJ.  He had many compelling reasons for insisting on IR, but complained that Zitzner’s PC division had recently removed IR ports from HP laptops.

To Duane’s immense displeasure, I called  a meeting with some of his design engineers, ostensibly to review the component cost envelope for laptops.  At the end of the meeting, when everyone was worn out,  I asked about IR, and they had a string of good reasons to throw it out.  When I pointed out that HP printers, cameras, and PC’s no longer worked together, they just sat there blinking at me.  Carly overruled engineering objections and IR ports made  a miraculous (albeit short-lived) reappearance in HP laptops.

It would  not be apparent outside the CEO suite for months, but architectural consistency was a technology theme that would drive many R&D investment decisions, both near-term and long-term.   In an effort to jump-start a consumer-facing initiative, Carly had approached Sony about sharing some key technologies.  One of Sony’s success stories was the introduction of memory stick technology into a broad range of Sony products from hundred-dollar consumer entertainment devices to studio-quality video cameras that cost a half million dollars or more.  My counterpart at Sony was a CTO named Mario Tokoro, a computer scientist and engineer who had spent time at the famous computer science department at Carnegie-Mellon University.  Mario had been instrumental in arranging for memory stick technology across a staggering array of Sony’s consumer and business products. The idea of arranging product strategies around this kind of architectural unity would have sped up HP’s brief surge in Internet and Web technologies.  It was an idea that was undone by colliding worlds on a much different scale.

[1] Charles H. House and Raymond L. Price, The HP Phenomenon: Innovation and Business Transformation, Stanford Business Books, 2009

A Letter to the Editor

January 11, 2010
Alan Perlis

Alan J. Perlis

I had planned to write a post later this spring on the collisions between what engineers sometimes perceive as practical and what turns out in practice to be useful.  It’s a complex issue and there are examples that cut both ways, suggesting that a deeper understanding of both the underlying technology and the social “soup” where innovators thrive are needed to avoid some famous traps.  I mentioned this briefly in my discussions of the impact of social fragmentation on innovation and the pitfalls of ignoring social contexts.

Then the January 2010 issue of Communications of the ACM crossed my desk.  As I skimmed the contents, I was surprised to see my name in the headline of the Editor’s  Letter, an attack by the Editor-in-Chief Moshe Vardi on a thirty-year-old paper [ Social Processes ] that I wrote with computing legend Alan J. Perlis and my colleague Richard J. Lipton (author of the popular Godel’s Lost Letter blog and subject of Dancing with the Stars ).  The paper itself was controversial in its day and addresses exactly the WWC questions that I plan to write about.  It is extraordinary for an Editor of a professional journal to use his position to make derogatory comments about articles, especially to  further his own views.  Mr.Vardi’s letter demanded a response.  Lipton and I will jointly publish a longer and more technical essay on this subject at some point in the future, but today we are jointly publishing the following Letter to the Editor. The letter will also be sent to the Communications of the ACM.

In his  Editor’s Letter in the January 2010 issue of CACM entitled “More Debate Please”,  Moshe Vardi makes a plea for controversial topics in these pages, citing a desire to “let truth emerge from vigorous debate.”  It is a sentiment that we support as well. But we question Mr. Vardi’s judgment in using his editorial position to mount an attack on colleagues who were neither forewarned nor given an opportunity to respond.  Mr.  Vardi’s target was  our 1979 critique of formal program verification entitled  “Social Processes and Proofs of Theorems and Programs,”  It was co-authored with the late Alan Perlis, one of the originators of the field and a lifelong advocate for the kind of open discussion that the Editor advocates.  We can only hope that future contributors have higher standards for debate than does the current Editor, because his out-of-context references to the 1979 debate over the practical efficacy of formal verification, his ex-cathedra determination that the article was “misguided” and his ill-informed view of the decision to publish it have no power to illuminate  a serious subject.

We do not care to respond to Mr. Vardi’s substantial mischaracterizations and misstatements at this time, but we do think it is fair to point out that  the publication of “Social Processes and Proofs of Theorems and Programs,” was not a singular event that might be classified as either misguided or not.  “Social Processes” was a refereed article.  A preliminary version was accepted  by a highly selective conference program committee in 1976 and its presentation was attended by virtually every living contributor to the field.  It was then submitted to this journal and reviewed by anonymous referees. Its publication was followed by many months of public presentations and workshops, letters to the Editor, written reinforcements and rebuttals, and — several years later — a special issue of this journal devoted to the topic.  Mr. Vardi faults the editorial board for not publishing an opposing “counterpoint” article, a suggestion that — although it has all the “fair and balanced” trappings — would have been hard to reconcile with the confidentiality usually accorded to contributed articles that are sent to referees for review. The irony is not be lost on us  that we were offered no such opportunity prior to publication of his letter.

The article itself has been reprinted dozens of times and has appeared in several anthologies in the philosophy of mathematics.  Its publication and the ensuing debate have been the subject of social science research (Donald MacKenzie’s 2001 book[1] “Mechanizing Proof” remains the definitive sociological and historical analysis of both the paper and its implications for the field). If our arguments seem off the mark to Mr. Vardi, then perhaps the right course of action is to resurrect the social process that led to the article’s publication in the first place and jump into the fray. Until that time, the correct editorial position for CACM and its Editor is to let both the paper and the written record that surrounds it speak for themselves.  It strikes us as inappropriate, after thirty years of silence,  to use the cover of an Editorship to  attack unsuspecting passersby, especially while touting the moral virtues of free and vigorous debate.

[1] Donald MacKenzie, Mechanizing Proof: Computing, Risk, and Trust, MIT Press 2001, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA