16 questions posed & answered by Leslie Berlin's book "Troublemakers: Silicon Valley's Coming of Age"

Bob Taylor & Xerox PARC

who does the most interesting work in the field?

Graduate students, Taylor felt, did the most interesting work in the field.

why is scarcity helpful for community building?

To Taylor’s surprise, many students told him that the time-sharing computers had helped them find friends and colleagues. A person could log on to the computer, look in a directory to see what had changed since his or her last login, and then, if a new program or clever bit of code had been added, it was easy to tell who was responsible and invite the coder for a beer.

what drives leaders?

Taylor was particularly interested in connecting the right people with one another. For a minister’s son who had once wanted to be a minister himself, he could be merciless in his judgments. To him, people were either geniuses or duds. He was interested in the geniuses. Once he found someone worth finding, he considered it his calling to help that person meet and work with others of the same caliber.

can an amateur be a technical visionary?

Taylor nonetheless says that for the entire time he was at ARPA, he had no sense of inferiority, even though he knew that he had not been the top choice to succeed Ivan Sutherland as director of the office. “There was not a one of them who I thought was smarter than me,” he says. (“I thought Lick was smarter than me,” he adds.) Taylor had graduated from high school at sixteen, had an IQ so high (154) it was written up in his small-town newspaper when he was a child, and finished college with a double major in psychology and math, as well as substantial coursework in religion, English, and philosophy. He did not possess the principal investigators’ depth of computer science knowledge, but the breadth of Taylor’s mind was wide and his chutzpah, limitless. He was unafraid to fire question after question in meetings, an assertive technique that nonetheless often helped the experts clarify their own thinking. As Barry Wessler put it, “Bob would not necessarily have a firm technological grasp on the details, but you would come in because you had a problem, and you’d walk out with a solution.” Taylor’s different background also meant he had nothing invested in any technical or social orthodoxy and could maintain a useful distance from the principal investigators. He had not gone to school with any of them. He was not their colleague or student, nor would he train students who might want to work in their labs.

how to get humble researchers to think more ambitiously?

When he had moved to ARPA, Taylor had continued to fund Engelbart’s work, directing some $500,000 (nearly $3.6 million in 2016 dollars) to the researcher. He was forever pushing Engelbart, who was by nature soft-spoken and self-effacing. At a dinner in about 1966, Taylor turned to the researcher abruptly. “The trouble with you, Doug, is that you don’t think big enough,” he said. “What would you really want to do?” When Engelbart, flustered, admitted that if he had enough money, he would buy a million-dollar time-sharing computer that would enable him to test and evolve his ideas more quickly, Taylor said, “Well, let’s write a proposal.” And they did.

how hard can one go in order to get the best people?

There was only one problem. Roberts did not want to run the networking project. He did not want to leave his own research. He did not like the idea of reporting to Bob Taylor, not because of anything personal about the man, but because in the universe in which Larry Roberts was educated and now lived, it just wasn’t right for a guy with an MIT PhD in engineering to report to a guy with a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Texas.
So when Taylor asked Roberts to come to ARPA to take charge of a new computer network, Roberts said no. He refused again a few months later and again after that.
But Taylor wanted the network to happen, and he wanted Roberts to make it happen, and Taylor was stubborn. He found a way to get Roberts—blackmail.
Taylor asked ARPA director Charles Herzfeld to call MIT’s Lincoln Lab and remind the head of the lab that 51 percent of its funding came from ARPA. Then he asked Herzfeld to suggest that the head of the lab let Roberts know that it would be in his best interest, and the best interest of the lab, to take the ARPA job overseeing the network.
Not too many days later, Roberts was called into the office belonging to the head of Lincoln Lab and told, “It’d probably be a nice thing for all of us if you’d consider this."
… Taylor let Roberts say what he wanted. What mattered was getting the network built, and Roberts was the man to do it. Hiring him, Taylor later said, “was probably the hardest and most important [element] of my Arpanet involvement.”

should visionaries not hire other visionaries?

Back near the PARC offices, Taylor paid a call to Engelbart’s lab at SRI and tapped Bill English, who had built the prototype of the first mouse and organized the technical production of the 1968 Mother of All Demos. English, in turn, recruited other members of Engelbart’s lab; fifteen would join PARC, most in the systems science lab. Taylor never considered wooing Engelbart because Taylor wanted what he called “hands-on engineers,” and Engelbart was anything but. “He was a visionary, and if there was anything this group didn’t need, that was another visionary,” Taylor says. He thought that Engelbart “could not explain what he wants.” Engelbart, meanwhile, was not comfortable even visiting PARC. “I went over there a couple of times to visit but people were always showing me what they were doing and it was in a sense almost like ‘See this is the real way to go,’ ” he said.

what draws researchers in?

Taylor was a draw, but PARC also offered high salaries and excellent resources. PARC researchers could easily interact with others at SRI and Stanford, particularly the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL). They could attend or give talks on campus, or meet with people visiting one of the other institutions. Several of the researchers from Taylor’s lab taught classes at Stanford. A job at PARC offered the intellectual stimulation of an academic career without teaching or publication demands.

There was only one inviolable administrative requirement in Taylor’s lab. Once each week, everyone had to be in the beanbag room for a meeting. Taylor did not care when his researchers got to work or what they wore while there. It did not matter when they went to lunch or whether they shaved. But he wanted them in the beanbag room every Tuesday—and he expected them to stay for hours. The meetings served as the intellectual pulse of the lab and a way for him to keep the team moving in the same direction. The gatherings also reveal the inner workings of what both Thacker and Lampson have described as Taylor’s “magical” leadership.

Taylor opened the sessions with administrative issues such as available billets and announcements of upcoming visitors. He then moved on to solicit project reports and ask for social announcements. Many members of the group, young and single, biked together in the hills or grabbed lunch at the Alpine Inn (fondly called “Zotts”) in the rural town of Portola Valley, a few miles from PARC. Researchers shared long weekend hikes among the coastal trees in the misty coolness above the valley. They barbecued at one another’s houses and worked on one another’s basement workshop projects. Taylor, a competitive tennis player, enjoyed challenging the best players at PARC to hard-core, sweat-streaming matches on the court behind his neighbor’s home. Afterward, the players would adjourn to Taylor’s house. “The Dr Pepper was cold, the doors were open, a breeze was blowing through, and everyone was always welcome to come in,” recalls Bob Metcalfe.

During the weekly lab meetings, Taylor also spent time fielding complaints. The cafeteria food was bad. Equipment was inadequate. Secretaries were overworked. Surprisingly often, grumblings about balky Xerox copiers led the list of problems.

how to prevent the decline of quality of hires over time?

One unstated criterion for hiring, explains Chuck Thacker, was for “every person we hired to increase the average IQ of the group.”

Al Alcorn & Atari

how judgemental of technical genius does one want to be?

One key to Valentine’s success as a venture capitalist was his willingness to overlook behavior and appearances that others of his generation considered unpleasant or even deviant. A conservative whose favorite author was Ayn Rand, Valentine also had no problem seeing past an engineer’s long hair, bare feet, unpolished manners, or questionable hygiene to ask what one of these “renegades from the human race” (his own term) might have to offer. At Fairchild, he had watched the same salesmen who drunkenly drove golf carts into water traps at midnight sell tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of products the next afternoon. At National, he had worked with Bob Widlar, the engineer who had bitten through glasses when he was at Fairchild. At National, Widlar kept a bottle of Jim Beam in his desk drawer, deigned to speak only to a select few people in the company, and occasionally engaged in office-destroying outbursts so prolonged and explosive that Valentine describes him as “certifiable.” But when Widlar was calm, he designed analog circuits that at one point accounted for roughly 75 percent of the worldwide market. “Bob steeled me from trying to homogenize great technical genius,” Valentine says.

is communication via words the only valid way of communication of ideas?

To stay profitable and ahead of copycats, he was always eager to try a new idea from Atari engineers. “An engineer doesn’t always come in a body that can talk,” he once explained. “But they’re not shitheads. You’ve got to have enough faith in them to say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about; here’s some money, go show me.’” When the engineers said that they could develop a better version of the VCS video game cartridge system—Super Stella—Bushnell was happy to let them try, even if the original VCS was not selling well. If they said they could build more powerful computers than the ones Atari was selling, he told them to get to work. His encouragement was a powerful motivator, particularly in tandem with Alcorn and Bristow’s insistence that only the most promising ideas be pursued.

Niels Reimers & Genentech

how ignorant do you want to be about the true difficulty of an ambitious project?

In four years, Genentech would have one of the biggest initial public offerings in Wall Street history. But in the spring of 1976, Genentech had no lab, no offices, and no scientists. It was just Swanson, Boyer (part-time), and the confident naiveté that they shared. Had they known what was to come—that insulin would prove too complex for a first product; that the first hormone they could synthesize (somatostatin) would have such problems in the earliest stages of its development that Swanson would check himself into the emergency room due to the stress; IV that Boyer’s academic colleagues, appalled by his “selling out to industry,” would ostracize him and request an investigation by the Faculty Senate; that even though the investigation would find no wrongdoing, Boyer would experience several agonizing years marked by what he called “a lot of anxieties and bouts of depression”; that the company would sue and be sued by its partners—they might not have done it.

Mark Markkula & Apple

what do you want to do when someone with great potential is not taking your obviously correct advice?

Standing in Jobs’s garage, Markkula knew that Wozniak’s Apple II computer was a magnificent answer to the hopes of anyone who had ever longed to own a machine. What he did not know, however, was whether a company could be built around that machine. He gave Jobs and Wozniak the same advice that he had shared with other aspiring entrepreneurs: write a business plan. Figure out your supply costs, the size of the market, the distribution paths. He thinks he even suggested that since it was impossible to estimate the potential size of a nonexistent market (for personal computers), the number of telephones in US households might provide a good starting point.

Over the coming weeks, as the autumn weather crisped, Jobs (and occasionally Wozniak) would drive to Markkula’s new house, a larger home a few blocks from his old one. The young men met Markkula in the small cabana he had built in his backyard near the pool. Wozniak was wowed: “He had a beautiful house in the hills overlooking the lights of Cupertino, this gorgeous view, amazing wife, the whole package.” At the end of every meeting, Markkula assigned homework: think through who the competition might be, what a reasonable profit might be, how you might staff the company, how fast you would want it to grow. Each of those factors would form a component of the plan that would tell Jobs and Wozniak if they could build a viable business.

Every meeting, Jobs returned without having done the work.

As the weeks passed, Markkula realized that Jobs and Wozniak were never going to write a business plan. How could they? Wozniak had his job at Hewlett-Packard and no interest in starting a company. Had it been up to him, he would have given away his computer designs or sold them at cost. Jobs was ferociously interested in launching a business, but in the fall of 1976, that meant trying to deliver the boards that the Byte Shop had ordered and then using that income to buy supplies to build more boards. Twenty-one years old and with fifteen months’ experience in the corporate world (all of it working for Atari as a technician), Jobs could not have known how to answer the questions and make the estimates that Markkula requested.

The only way Markkula was going to see a business plan, he realized, was to write it himself.

when to be hands-off and when to step in as a manager?

Markkula, believing that “too much supervision is one of the most common management mistakes,” took a hands-off approach. “He would camp in his office a lot, scheming away very thoughtfully,” says Hawkins. “There was not a lot of management-by-walking-around.” Markkula liked to say that he wanted to hear people arguing in the halls. They argued, too, in his meetings. When two of his deputies could not agree on how many Apple IIs to build for the Christmas season, Markkula told them that if they couldn’t choose a number, he would have to do it, “and you don’t want me to decide [because] I don’t know half as much as you know.” That was about as much of a threat as he ever made. He let people at Apple make their own decisions and mistakes.

Jobs, meanwhile, tried to see around corners. With Markkula’s blessing—“My strategy from Day One with Steve was to keep him so busy that he would stay out of trouble,” Markkula says—Jobs took over the Macintosh group, to the applause of some and consternation of others. When Jobs hung a pirate flag over the building where the Macintosh was being developed, many people at Apple interpreted it as a defiant move. Markkula felt differently: “I wanted [Jobs] to use as much of the Lisa technology as made sense. And for them to think they were pirating it away was just fine with me.” The Lisa team included the Macintosh group on its user interface memos.

is it inappropriate to show enthusiasm in business meetings physically?

Jobs made calls, Goldberg received the order, and Jobs and the Apple engineers got their first glimpse of the Alto’s graphical user interface and mouse, its icons and menus, and the ease with which it could be reconfigured to meet different users’ needs. Throughout the second demonstration, Jobs was alternately jumping around, yelling in excitement, and standing so close that Tesler could feel his breath on his neck.

do innovative startups with young founders want to hire industry veterans?

The influence of semiconductor industry veterans such as Valentine on the young Apple is striking. In the three years that Apple Computer was privately held, the following key executive roles were filled by people who had worked in the semiconductor industry: board chair, president, CFO, and the vice presidents of manufacturing, sales, marketing, human resources, and communications. Of key executives, only Apple’s chief counsel and two senior technical leads had not come from the semiconductor industry. Moreover, three of Apple’s most important early investors—Valentine, Rock, and Venrock—came to Apple via Markkula’s semiconductor industry ties. Regis McKenna, who played a vital role in positioning Apple for the public, was also a semiconductor veteran.

The magnitude of Markkula’s influence on Apple is not widely recognized today, and he has generally liked it that way. After Jobs, Markkula was the first person to perceive the business opportunity latent in Wozniak’s Apple II. He used his connections to staff and finance the company. He wrote Apple’s business plans and pushed for key technical developments. He set the company’s marketing focus, as well as its attention to detail and first impressions. He led Apple to one of the most successful public debuts in US history, mentored Steve Jobs (who once called Markkula “like a father”), stepped in as president despite not wanting to do it, and escorted Apple into the Fortune 500. To be sure, Apple’s profits began slipping within six months of his resignation, evidence that the products and plans put into place under his watch were not adequately meeting the challenge from IBM and other competitors. Moreover, he served on, and briefly chaired, the Apple board during the years 1983–1997, when the company struggled almost to the point of collapse. Yet his early, vital importance cannot be diminished. Without Mike Markkula, there would be no Apple.

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