The indelible legacy of William Hewlett

William Hewlett’s death in January marked the end of more than one era in Silicon Valley.

If we’re all lucky, his passing will remind today’s technology leaders of what we’ve all lost in the past few years.

Hewlett and his long-time partner, David Packard, who died in 1996, were among the valley’s genuine founding fathers. They created a corporate giant but never forgot about either the essential humanity of the people who worked for their company or the needs of the larger community.

Packard was better known. Hewlett was probably the better engineer. But the two built a remarkable company, with a management style that Hewlett later said was his proudest achievement.

Hewlett-Packard Co., the company, had values. It followed principles that companies around the world have adopted, in lip service if nothing else. The values stemmed from the founders, who believed in things like honesty and caring for neighbours.

It came under the umbrella of the “HP Way” and at its core was the notion that employees and communities mattered. The HP Way combined respect, hard work, community spirit and basic humanity. Companies around the nation say they subscribe to these ideals, but few have made them a core mission.

The bursting of the dot-com bubble has caused great pain, but it’s ultimately healthy. I don’t know how Hewlett viewed it, but he must have been flabbergasted at the bubble’s inflation and unamazed when the party ended. It must also have looked foreign to him.

Indeed, Silicon Valley must have become a strange place to someone like Hewlett. The valley, where riches were created almost overnight in the 1990s, has been dominated by short-term thinking. That wasn’t Hewlett’s way of doing things. He believed in thinking for the long term.

The valley is noted for the high percentage of corporate chiefs who ignore all but their corporate goals. Helping the needy, supporting the arts, showing a civic sensibility – those aren’t the kind of things you see enough in Silicon Valley, despite its wealth.

Hewlett believed in philanthropy – passionately. He gave away millions to his alma mater, Stanford University, started a public-policy foundation and left the bulk of his estate, estimated at around US$9 billion, to a foundation named after him and his first wife, Flora. Along with Packard’s foundation, Hewlett’s is one of the world’s biggest.

The lesson of Hewlett’s life seems lost on so many current technology people, for whom the urgency of Internet time – that relentless compression of real time – shoves all other considerations aside. Hewlett and Packard were competitive, all right, but they didn’t value paranoia above other qualities, as some modern executives seem to do.

What’s missing today in Silicon Valley and outside of it is any sense of community. No corporate or political leader can create it. They can only encourage it, by deed and example. Hewlett and Packard lived it.

I wasn’t able to make it to Hewlett’s memorial service. But a local venture capitalist who was there told me the crowd was almost entirely comprised of people in their late 40s or older. Some of the entrepreneurs who approach his firm don’t even know who Hewlett was, he said, shaking his head.

Gillmor is a technology columnist at the San Jose Mercury News.


Remembering the person behind the company

Carly Fiorina, HP’s chairman, president and chief executive officer, called Hewlett a “great and gentle man.” Others remembered him as a good natured, approachable person with a sharp intellect that allowed him to pick up quickly on new ideas and technologies.

“Bill was a very down-to-earth, kind and thoughtful person. He was very curious and interested to learn about his employees,” said Edward Barnholt, chief executive officer of Agilent Technologies Inc., the testing and measurement division of HP that was spun out in 1999. Barnholt worked with Hewlett for 34 years at HP before leaving to lead Agilent.

“Both individuals had a strong belief in the potential of people, and that the manager’s job was to create an environment that allowed people to achieve their potential,” Barnholt said. “I think that idea was very different from the management philosophy that prevailed at the time. Management by objectives, management by wandering around – a lot of these practices are commonplace around Silicon Valley today, more of the personal touch.”

As Hewlett once put it: “We did not want to run a hire-and-fire operation, but rather a company based on a loyal and dedicated workforce.” Packard wrote down the pair’s management credo, which became known as the “HP Way.”

Hewlett was born May 13, 1913, in Ann Arbor, Mich. He moved to California at age three when his father, who was a physician, joined the faculty at Stanford’s medical school. Hewlett later enrolled at Stanford himself, where he befriended fellow engineering student Packard.

In 1939, at the urging of one of their professors, the young men founded HP using $538 in personal funds. The company’s first product was an audio oscillator, a precision device for conducting scientific measurements in fields like acoustics and oil exploration. The Walt Disney Co. used eight of the products to help create the soundtrack for its musical cartoon movie Fantasia.

Hewlett has most often been described as the scientific mind behind HP, while Packard supplied the business savvy. One often cited story from the late 1960s describes how Hewlett asked engineers at HP’s Labs – one of his favourite haunts — to design a version of HP’s desktop calculator that would fit in his shirt pocket. The result was one of the world’s first handheld scientific calculators, introduced in 1972.

The garage in which the two men started HP has been made a California state historical landmark. Last year, HP bought the building, which it has used in advertising campaigns that try to highlight its no-frills, shirt-sleeved beginnings.