The microprocessor is often referred to as the “brains” inside your computer, and today we celebrate one of the brains behind the “brains” of your computer – Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel, was nicknamed the “Mayor of Silicon Valley” and would have been 84 years old today. We are reminded of Noyce’s intelligence and leadership as innovation in microprocessor and related technologies continues to fuel the next era of the computing experiences integrated into our daily lives.
Below is a guest blog post from Intel employee Alejandra Carvallo on the key learnings she recently discovered in reading about integrated circuit pioneer Robert Noyce.
5 Key Learnings from the Mayor of Silicon Valley – Intel’s very own: Robert Noyce
By Carvallo, Alejandra
Robert Norton Noyce: December 12, 1927 – June 3, 1990
Visionary engineer, co-inventor of the integrated circuit, co-founder of Intel and organizational renegade par excellence, Robert Noyce would be 84 today. For those of us too young or recently-arrived at Intel to have known him—and today that’s most of us—it’s hard to grasp just how much he did to create the connected, intelligent world we live in, the semiconductor industry that makes it possible, and the organization we work in. To some extent, every one of us here at Intel—and in the thousands of innovation-driven companies that have transplanted our corporate culture around the world—are following a path that Robert Noyce helped create. I’ve been doing some reading to reacquaint myself with the man, and I can particularly recommend two sources: the 1983 profile Tom Wolfe wrote for Esquire on Intel’s 25th anniversary and The Man Behind the Microchip by Leslie Berlin.
Here are a few key lessons I’ve learned from the man they used to call the Mayor of Silicon Valley.
1: Risk is the route to insight and reward, but it’s no path for the ill-prepared. Robert Noyce was a risk-taker by nature. At 14 he and a brother launched a home-made glider off a barn roof and survived to design a better take-off technique—a rope tied to the bumper of a neighbor’s car. LOL! In college he was a champion diver. As an adult he skied, drove a Porsche roadster, flew his own planes and hang-gliders, and twice walked away from successful ventures to start something new. Early in his career, having decided to leave Philco for Shockley semiconductor, he flew his young family to California, bought a house the same morning, and only then visited Shockley to ask for a job. How’s that for risk taking? But there was always more method than raw intuition in Bob’s risk-taking. His legendary self-confidence came from exhaustive preparation, deep analysis and relentless hard work. He understood that only intelligent and informed risk-taking leads to successful innovation, and Robert spent much of his working life trying to create an organization where innovation would flourish organically.
2: A rigid hierarchy stifles innovation. Robert’s early experience in large corporate organizations, rigid management hierarchies and privileged social elites convinced him that conventional east coast business cultures were both ethically challenged and incapable of rapid technological innovation. First at Fairchild Semiconductor and most famously at Intel, he created vastly more democratic cultures where new ideas could arise and compete based solely on their merits. Major decisions were made by the employees most directly affected. Internal conflicts were resolved in face-to-face meetings with a minimum of mediation. Of course, eliminating a rigid management structure creates a new challenge: balancing freedom and discipline in the absence of heavy enforcement. This led Robert (and me) to…
3: A company can become a self-managing community if all its members embrace a shared set of goals and values. Robert’s solution to the discipline required of a growing business was to create a shared culture in which goals, values and core operating principles were defined by management and infused through the organization through a universal program of meetings and classes. By internalizing the organization’s shared goals and values, employees would become members of a community, and self-discipline reinforced through mutual evaluation would replace the behavioral constraints of continuous top-down oversight and direction. This is the essence of the Intel culture.
4: Business, like all of life, is an ethical endeavor. Beneath Robert’s commitment to the business as a community of self-directing individuals was a fundamental sense of right and wrong and a deep commitment to justice. Wolfe attributes this to Robert’s mid-west upbringing in a small community united by the values of the Congregational Church. Whatever its source, there’s no arguing with his assertion that at Intel, “Noyce managed to create an ethical universe within an inherently amoral setting: the American business corporation in the second half of the twentieth century.” The relaxed culture that Noyce brought to Intel was a carry-over from his style at Fairchild Semiconductor. He treated employees as family, rewarding and encouraging team work. His follow-your-bliss management style set the tone for many Valley success stories. Noyce’s management style could be called “roll up your sleeves.” He shunned fancy corporate cars, reserved parking spaces, private jets, offices, and furnishings in favor of a less-structured, relaxed working environment in which everyone contributed and no one benefited from lavish perquisites. By declining the usual executive perks he stood as a model for future generations of Intel CEOs.
5: If you get the community right, great things will happen. The first breakthrough innovation by a Noyce-led organization was his own co-invention (with Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments) of the integrated circuit. The second was the invention of the microprocessor by Intel’s Ted Hoff. Robert saw it as a confirmation of all his ideas about community, culture and motivation; of the conviction that, as Wolfe writes, “If you created the right type of community, the right type of autonomous congregation, genius would flower.”
In his last interview, Noyce was asked what he would do if he were “emperor” of the United States. He said that he would, among other things, “make sure we are preparing our next generation to flourish in a high-tech age. And that means education of the lowest and the poorest, as well as at the graduate school level.” After his death, his family honored his dream by creating the Noyce Foundation , an organization dedicated to improve public education in mathematics and science in grades K-12.
It’s been 21 years since this community lost Robert Noyce, but invention still blossoms in the garden he planted here, in RNB [Robert Noyce Building at Intel’s headquarters in Santa Clara, California).
If you had the pleasure to meet Robert at Intel or outside of Intel, go ahead and leave your comments below. I am sure your comments will help us carry his legacy.