Gates, Schmates

Time is not alone in its oversight. Today, Noyce is not considered in the pantheon of household-name technologists with Gates, Moore, and Jobs. That may be due to the fact that he died in 1990, on the very edge of the decade in which engineers became famous due to their power to make others rich. But in many ways, Noyce and his contributions to the technological, business, and cultural development of Silicon Valley did more to pave the way to this transformation than any other. Noyce, however, has finally received his due credit thanks to a comprehensive and admiring biography by Leslie Berlin, The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley. Hopefully it can restore to proper renown a man once called the Thomas Edison and the Henry Ford of Silicon Valley.

Berlin does a fine job uncovering the details of Noyce’s childhood and tracing his intellectual development. From an early age, he was distinguished by his ability to translate innovation into reality. He grew up in Iowa, an adventurous kid enamored with elaborate technical projects; when others were building model airplanes, he was constructing a glider that carried him aloft from a neighbor’s barn. Explaining to Tom Wolfe in a savvy profile for Esquire why he and other guys from small towns became successful engineers in the ’50s and ’60s, Noyce suggested that necessity forced them to become technicians, tinkers, engineers, and inventors. “In a small town,” he told Wolfe, “when something breaks down, you don’t wait around for a new part, because it’s not coming. You make it yourself.” Although certainly competent as a theoretician, Noyce was at heart an experimenter, obsessed with the desire to test his ideas in practice.

After receiving his Ph.D. from MIT, Noyce worked briefly in Philadelphia before accepting an offer to work for electronics pioneer William Shockley in Mountain View, Calif., and soon became the leader of a group building a silicon version of the transistor Shockley had helped invent. Though brilliant, the tyrannical and paranoid Shockley was a notoriously difficult person to work for. Noyce’s time with Shockley ended with a failed corporate coup, and his entire group (nicknamed “The Traitorous Eight”) left to start Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation. Although Noyce became the general manager, for the first few years, he continued to play a major technical role, engineering breakthroughs in manufacturing and patenting the integrated circuit.

Fairchild Semiconductor was the cornerstone company in the development of Silicon Valley and for years served as an incubator for talented engineers and managers who eventually left to start their own companies, such as Applied Materials, Signetics, and LSI Logic. But because Fairchild Semiconductor was a subsidiary of Fairchild Camera and Instrument, an East-Coast company mired in traditional corporate culture, the semiconductor division was never able to operate as Noyce envisioned it. Finally abandoning his quest to reform the mother company, Noyce resigned in June 1968 to start Intel with his long-time partner Gordon Moore.

Noyce’s charisma made him an inspiring leader, but he fell short on the day-to-day responsibilities of managing a growing company. Fairchild and Intel’s former chief counsel explained to Berlin that “Noyce’s idea of planning was to yell, ‘Let’s take the hill!'” Moved by his passionate call to arms, his troops would begin running behind him with a shared sense of direction and purpose but unsure of their individual roles. Noyce quickly ran up against the limits of that kind of management and resigned as president in 1975, handing over the reins to Moore. Noyce continued to be a presence at Intel until his death, but he became more engaged in mentoring and providing seed capital to promising entrepreneurs. One of his most devoted acolytes was none other than Steve Jobs, who relied on Noyce’s advice in the formative days of Apple Computer. Thus, Bob Noyce played a major part in each stage of the innovations that resulted in personal computers.

Noyce’s achievements as a scientist stand on their own. Berlin writes convincingly that Noyce might rightfully have shared two separate Nobel Prizes for Physics. But, as significant as his technological achievements, Noyce’s role in creating the culture of Silicon Valley represents his most far-reaching accomplishment. I believe that history will judge him to be the single most important factor in forming the breakthrough creative environment that came to define this era.

Stanford engineering professor and provost Frederick Terman was the first to recognize the importance of keeping bright Stanford engineering graduates together in community and created a close, symbiotic relationship between the university and nearby technology companies in order to do just that. Shockley drew upon this talent pool when he created his company but didn’t have the managerial skill required to put the pieces together. (Some have called Shockley the “Moses” of Silicon Valley in that he led others to the Promised Land but couldn’t enter himself.) Noyce, however, understood how to manage smart people. His time working on the East Coast and for Shockley taught him the limits of a hierarchical work culture. In its place, Noyce sought to create an environment where bright people were given every incentive to succeed and every reward when they did. It was Noyce, for instance, who pioneered the use of stock options.

As a manager, Noyce was known for giving competent technologists room to develop their own ideas. Being pushed by Noyce, Berlin writes, meant being “invigorated by a sense [of having] sloughed off all superfluous accretions of conservative thinking and conventional wisdom.” The recipient of Noyce’s perceptive questioning would leave the conversation feeling “that he could now do what Noyce had somehow convinced him it was possible to do.”

Noyce also brought a pragmatism that eluded many of his university-coddled competitors, adopting a “quick and dirty” approach to research that called for moving forward with an idea as soon as a rudimentary test showed that it might work. He recognized the value of rapidly introducing products into the marketplace in order to gain market share and understood that this often meant taking calculated risks. New products didn’t have to be perfect in order to succeed. In one famous example, Intel shipped its revolutionary 1103 semiconductor memory chip despite its known problems because the company was struggling and needed a quick source of revenue. Bill Gates justly owes the part of his fortune created by selling upgrades of his never-perfected operating system to Noyce.

Noyce had a sensitivity to work culture uncommon to engineers, and he set out consciously to create a climate that maximized productivity. He saw equality as the cornerstone of the new culture; big companies were bad because their size invariably created inequality that frustrated individual initiative. While there might be a distinction between employees because of their productivity, Noyce believed that there should not be artificial barriers because of title or seniority. Noyce sought feedback and believed that every employee should feel empowered and entitled to give his or her frank opinion to everyone else, regardless of their position on the corporate “food chain.”

Many of the managerial principles Noyce applied now seem commonsensical, even clichd. They certainly did not to the Grey Flannel workplace of the ’50s. Perhaps that is the greatest testimony to Noyce’s achievement. So complete was the revolution he set in motion that the ethos he destroyed is all but forgotten. Hopefully, thanks to Leslie Berlin’s thorough and worthy retelling of his life, the same will not be said about Robert Noyce.

Robert Burnett worked in Silicon Valley for more than 20 years and was the first vice president of engineering at Cisco Systems. Since retiring in 1991, he has begun a second career as a writer. He lives in Berkeley, Calif. bobburnett@comcast.net.

Robert Burnett worked in Silicon Valley for more than 20 years and was the first vice president of engineering at Cisco Systems. Since retiring in 1991, he has begun a second career as a writer. He lives in Berkeley, Calif. bobburnett@comcast.net.

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